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Gould v. Housing Authority of City of Augusta

Court of Appeals of Georgia

November 3, 2017


          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         Carrie Gould appeals the superior court's dismissal of her petition for certiorari in which she sought review of a hearing officer's decision upholding the decision of the Housing Authority of the City of Augusta to terminate her Section 8 voucher benefits. We agree with Gould that the hearing officer's decision is subject to review on certiorari because the hearing was quasi-judicial in nature and the hearing officer exercised judicial powers. Thus, we reverse the superior court's dismissal of the petition.

         The question of whether the superior court lacked jurisdiction is an issue of law that this court reviews de novo. See Goddard v. City of Albany, 285 Ga. 882, 883 (1) (684 S.E.2d 635) (2009). So viewed, the record reflects that the Housing Authority of the City of Augusta is the public housing authority that administers the federal government's Section 8 housing vouchers program for the city of Augusta and is governed by federal regulations codified in 24 CFR § 982, et seq. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") is the regulatory agency that oversees the voucher program. 24 CFR § 982.1. Under the voucher program, the housing authority issues vouchers to qualified families, those families submit the vouchers to participating landlords, and the landlords, in turn, redeem the vouchers with the housing authority for payment. The housing authority funds its regular voucher payments with annual contributions from HUD, and those contributions are only permitted to be used for regular voucher payments. See Jones v. Housing Auth. of Fulton County, 315 Ga.App. 15, 17 n. 2 (726 S.E.2d 484) (2012). In accordance with HUD requirements, the housing authority adopted a written administrative plan that established policies for administration of the program. See 24 CFR § 982.54 (a).

         Gould was issued a voucher under federal Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments Program for Existing Housing (Section 8) by the housing authority, which she used to rent a home from her landlord. After an annual inspection, the housing authority determined that Gould's residence did not meet the housing quality standards required under federal regulations, and it gave notice to Gould that the vouchers to her landlord would be terminated. Gould then sought approval from the housing authority to move to a new residence. Pursuant to the housing authority's administrative plan, before Gould could be issued new vouchers for a new residence, the housing authority required the submission of a "zero balance letter" from Gould's current landlord stating that Gould did not owe the landlord any money for rent or damages. The landlord refused to issue the letter.

         The housing authority then terminated Gould's participation in the Section 8 program for her failure to comply with the housing authority family obligations and submit the required documents. The housing authority informed Gould of her right to contest the decision under the housing authority's administrative plan. See 24 CFR § 982.555. Gould requested an informal hearing and was represented by counsel who recorded the hearing, although neither a copy of the recording nor a transcript of the informal hearing was included in the record on appeal. (The housing authority's counsel of record on appeal was the hearing officer.) The hearing officer upheld the housing authority's decision to terminate Gould's participation in the Section 8 program.

         Gould filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in superior court pursuant to OCGA § 5-4-1 (a) seeking review of the decision to terminate her rental assistance. After the superior court initially issued the writ of certiorari, the housing authority moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that the decision was administrative and not subject to review. Following a hearing, the superior court granted the housing authority's motion to dismiss and vacated the writ of certiorari, finding that it lacked jurisdiction to review the decision. We granted Gould's application for discretionary appeal to consider whether the superior court erred in dismissing her petition for writ of certiorari for lack of jurisdiction.

         Under OCGA § 5-4-1 (a), "[t]he writ of certiorari shall lie for the correction of errors committed by any inferior judicatory or any person exercising judicial powers, " except in certain cases not applicable here. To determine whether a writ of certiorari is the appropriate method of review,

we must decide whether the hearing officer whose order is being reviewed exercised judicial or quasi-judicial powers, or whether the officer merely exercised administrative or legislative functions. If the officer exercised judicial powers, his or her actions are subject to review on certiorari; if, however, the officer exercised legislative, executive, or ministerial powers, any error cannot be corrected by certiorari. . . . The basic distinction between an administrative and a judicial act by officers other than judges is that a quasi-judicial action, contrary to an administrative function, is one in which all parties are as a matter of right entitled to notice and to a hearing, with the opportunity afforded to present evidence under judicial forms of procedure; and that no one deprived of such rights is bound by the action taken. The test is whether the parties at interest had a right under the law to demand a trial in accordance with judicial procedure.

Mack II v. City of Atlanta, 227 Ga.App. 305, 307 (1) (489 S.E.2d 357) (1997) (citations, punctuation, and emphasis omitted). In deciding whether the hearing officer exercised judicial or quasi-judicial powers, "the particular function performed at the hearing must be evaluated." Bd. of Commrs. of Effingham County v. Farmer, 228 Ga.App. 819, 822 (1) (493 S.E.2d 21) (1997) (holding that a hearing authority exercised quasi-judicial power because it functioned as a civil service board, and that the rulings of such tribunals are quasi-judicial in nature).

         The record reflects that the housing authority notified Gould of her right to request an "informal hearing" in accordance with federal regulations mandating such notice and hearing.[1] 24 CFR § 982.555 (a) (2), (c) (2). Gould submitted such a request. Gould was represented by counsel at the hearing. See 24 CFR § 982.555 (c) (3). She was permitted to voice her disagreement with the housing authority's determination, id. at (c) (2) (ii), to conduct discovery, id. at (e) (2) (i), to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses at the hearing, id. at (e) (5), and, in accordance with the housing authority's administrative plan, to request that the housing authority staff be present at the hearing to answer questions. The hearing officer conducted the hearing in accordance with the procedures established in the housing authority's administrative plan. 24 CFR § 982.55 (4) (ii). Under the federal regulations and the housing authority's administrative plan, the hearing was not subject to the strict rules of evidence but the hearing officer was required to, and did, make findings based upon the preponderance of the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing.[2] 24 CFR § 982.555 (e) (5), (6).

         The record demonstrates that Gould had the right to proper notice and a fair hearing, that she was afforded the opportunity to present evidence under judicial forms of procedure, and that the hearing officer made his decision after determining the facts under a preponderance of the evidence standard and applying the appropriate law. Thus the hearing officer's decision was the result of quasi-judicial action. See City of Cumming v. Flowers, 300 Ga. 820, 823-824 (3) (797 S.E.2d 846) (2017); South View Cemetery Assn. v. Hailey, 199 Ga. 478, 481 (4) (34 S.E.2d 863) (1945).

         The dissent characterizes our opinion as improperly expanding the role of the judiciary. That is a mischaracterization. The issue before us is narrow: whether Georgia law provides certiorari review in cases like this one.

         The dissent finds that the hearing was administrative instead of quasi-judicial primarily for two reasons: because the hearing officer's actions are subject to the authority granted to him by the housing authority and because under certain circumstances the hearing officer's decision is not binding on the parties. Neither reason supports the determination that the proceeding was administrative instead of quasi-judicial.

         The authority and responsibility vested in the hearing officer under the housing authority's administrative plan required him to determine "whether the action, inaction or decision of the Augusta Housing Authority [was] legal in accordance with HUD regulations and [the] [a]dministrative [p]lan based upon the evidence and testimony provided at the hearing." See 24 CFR §§ 982.54, 982.555 (a). Contrary to the dissent's position, the hearing officer was charged with exercising his own judgment under the federal law applicable to the housing authority's decision. He was required to "determine the facts and apply the [appropriate] legal standards to them, which is a decision-making process akin to a judicial act." City of Cumming, 300 Ga. at 824 ...

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