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City of Union Point v. Greene County

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 15, 2018


          Boggs, Justice.

         This dispute between Greene County and the City of Union Point arises out of the Service Delivery Strategy Act, OCGA § 36-70-20 et seq., and calls into question the constitutionality of the evidentiary hearing process provided by OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (2). In its order entered at the end of the hearing process, the trial court found that portion of the statute unconstitutional, and further found that sovereign immunity barred all claims and remedies except those provided for in the SDS Act itself. We affirm the trial court's ruling on sovereign immunity, but reverse its finding on the constitutionality of OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (2). We further find that the trial court exceeded the bounds of the statutory process by going beyond the remedies provided to order particular actions by the parties and by considering matters not submitted to mediation. We therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate the trial court's order in part, and remand for entry of an appropriate order.

         The SDS Act was enacted in 1997.[1] The General Assembly declared that the Act is intended

to provide a flexible framework within which local governments in each county can develop a service delivery system that is both efficient and responsive to citizens in their county. The General Assembly recognizes that the unique characteristics of each county throughout the state preclude a mandated legislative outcome for the delivery of services in every county. The process provided by this article is intended to minimize inefficiencies resulting from duplication of services and competition between local governments and to provide a mechanism to resolve disputes over local government service delivery, funding equity, and land use. The local government service delivery process should result in the minimization of noncompatible municipal and county land use plans and in a simple, concise agreement describing which local governments will provide which service in specified areas within a county and how provision of such services will be funded.

OCGA § 36-70-20. The SDS Act prescribes a process for developing a local government service agreement, OCGA § 36-70-21, its required components, OCGA § 36-70-23, and criteria for its development, OCGA § 36-70-24.

         The SDS Act was amended in 2000 to add OCGA § 36-70-25.1.[2] This statute provides a "mechanism to resolve disputes" between a county and its municipalities, beginning with "some form of alternative dispute resolution" under subsection (c), "the imposition of sanctions" by the limitation of funding for "any local government or authority which is not included in a department verified strategy or for any project which is inconsistent with such strategy" pursuant to OCGA § 36-70-27, and mandatory mediation under subsection (d) (1). If all these provisions fail to resolve a dispute, subsection (d) (2) provides:

If no service delivery strategy has been submitted for verification to the Department of Community Affairs at the conclusion of the mediation, any aggrieved party may petition the superior court and seek resolution of the items remaining in dispute. The visiting or senior judge shall conduct an evidentiary hearing or hearings as such judge deems necessary and render a decision with regard to the disputed items. In rendering the decision, the judge shall consider the required elements of a service delivery strategy with a goal of achieving the intent of this article as specified in Code Section 36-70-20. It shall be in the discretion of the judge to hold the sanctions specified in Code Section 36-70-27 against one or more of the parties in abeyance pending the disposition of the action. The court is authorized to utilize its contempt powers to obtain compliance with its decision relating to the disputed items under review. The judge shall be authorized to impose mediation costs and court costs against any party upon a finding of bad faith.

         In October 1999, pursuant to the SDS Act, Greene County and five municipalities within the County, including the City of Union Point, entered into various intergovernmental agreements governing local services. These agreements were incorporated into a service delivery strategy and filed with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.[3] The service delivery strategy was amended from time to time, most substantially in 2004.

         The litigation before us began on October 21, 2015, when the City of Union Point filed a "Complaint for TRO, Interlocutory and Permanent Injunction, " alleging that Greene County had unilaterally discontinued police and fire dispatch and communications services to the City's police and fire departments and had ignored attempts to resolve the issue. The trial court entered a temporary restraining order directing the County to resume dispatch and communications services. A month later, in response to a motion to dismiss, the City amended its complaint to seek a declaratory judgment and mediation under OCGA §§ 36-70-28 (c)[4] and 36-70-25.1 (d). After the County filed a second motion to dismiss on the grounds of sovereign immunity, standing, and untimely request for mediation, the City again amended its complaint to assert claims for breach of contract, mandamus, specific performance, injunction and attorney fees, and attached a certified copy of the service delivery agreements on file with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

         On January 12, 2016, the trial court entered a consent order assigning the dispute to mediation pursuant to OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (1) (A), staying all other proceedings in the case, directing the County to continue to provide dispatch and communications services until the end of the mediation period, and adding the city of Greensboro as a necessary party to the mediation under OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (1) (B). The dispute went to mediation, where the parties reached agreement "in principle" on a number of issues, but were unable to resolve the dispute regarding dispatch and communications services. At the petition of the City, as provided for in the consent order, the trial court proceeded to an evidentiary hearing under OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (2).

         After hearing two days of testimony and argument and receiving approximately 1750 pages of documentary evidence, the trial court issued a 47-page "Final Order." In that order, the trial court concluded that OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (2) is unconstitutional and void because it violates the separation of powers clause of the Georgia Constitution.[5] While finding that the rest of the parties' contentions therefore were moot, the trial court "for purposes of judicial economy" nevertheless ruled on those issues. It found that sovereign immunity barred "the claims not grounded in the relief provided under the SDS Act" (emphasis in original), ruled with respect to pending motions and other procedural issues, and then ruled on the parties' numerous claims regarding the funding of public services under the SDS Act.

         In its order, the trial court made findings of fact regarding various services provided by the County, the source of funding for those services, and whether those services were provided to residents of the municipalities in the County or to residents of unincorporated areas, or both. It then applied the relevant statutory provisions to the facts and determined the legally permissible sources of funding for those services. It found that certain services were in compliance with the SDS Act, while others were not.[6] It also found that the County had breached certain terms of the underlying agreements. While concluding in some instances that the parties must enter into a joint agreement for service and funding, the court also gave specific direction with regard to funding, requiring that certain services be funded from particular sources, and enjoining the funding of those services from other sources, as well as enjoining the collection of fees until an agreement is reached, and directing that certain fees be refunded.

         The City appeals from the trial court's finding that OCGA § 36-70-25.1 (d) (2) is unconstitutional, its finding that sovereign immunity barred most of the City's claims, and its specific findings with respect to funding for road and bridge maintenance. The County cross-appeals, contending that sovereign immunity barred the trial court's grant of injunctive relief, and further contending that the trial court erred in its specific findings with respect to the funding and delivery of emergency dispatch services, recreation and library services, and the refund of certain grant matching funds.[7]

         1. We first consider the trial court's ruling on sovereign immunity. The Georgia Constitution provides:

Except as specifically provided in this Paragraph, sovereign immunity extends to the state and all of its departments and agencies. The sovereign immunity of the state and its departments and agencies can only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly which specifically provides that sovereign immunity is thereby waived and the extent of such waiver.

Ga. Const. Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX (e). This Court has repeatedly ruled on the scope of this provision. "The plain and unambiguous text of the 1991 constitutional amendment shows that only the General Assembly has the authority to waive the State's sovereign immunity." (Citations omitted.) Ga. Dept. of Natural Resources v. Center for a Sustainable Coast, 294 Ga. 593, 599 (2) (755 S.E.2d 184) (2014).

In addressing this issue, we recognize that implied waivers of governmental immunity should not be favored, but also that this does not mean that the Legislature must use specific 'magic words' such as 'sovereign immunity is hereby waived' in order to create a specific statutory waiver of sovereign immunity.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Ga. Dept. of Corrections v. Couch, 295 Ga. 469, 473-474 (2) (759 S.E.2d 804) (2014).

         (a) The only potential parties to an action under OCGA § 36-70-25.1 are counties and affected municipalities. "Indeed, in order for the statute to have any meaning at all here, it can only be interpreted as creating a waiver of sovereign immunity." Colon v. Fulton County, 294 Ga. 93, 96 (1) (751 S.E.2d 307) (2013), overruled on other grounds, Rivera v. Washington, 298 Ga. 770, 778 (784 S.E.2d 775) (2016). "Because the General Assembly is presumed to intend something by passage of an ...

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