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Gates v. Taylor County School Do-004 District

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

June 13, 2018

GATES et al.
v.
TAYLOR COUNTY SCHOOL DO-004 DISTRICT et al.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          DOYLE, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Brenda Gates and 283 other plaintiffs sued the Taylor County School District; Superintendent Jennifer Albritton; and current or former Taylor County Board of Education ("School Board") members Mary Bentley, Ronald Harris, Eloise Doty, Rufus Green II, and Joseph Patterson. The plaintiffs challenged the voting authority of Green and certain resulting acts undertaken by the School Board, and they sought injunctive and other equitable relief. Following a dismissal on the pleadings, the plaintiffs appeal, contending that the trial court erred by concluding that the officer de facto doctrine defeats their challenge to the School Board's actions. Because the trial court properly ruled that Green was acting as an officer de facto when he cast the votes at issue, we affirm.

         "We review a grant or denial of a motion to dismiss to determine whether the allegations of the complaint, when construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff[s], and with all doubts resolved in the plaintiffs['] favor, disclose with certainty that the plaintiff[s] would not be entitled to relief under any state of provable facts."[1] When, as here, the defendants have moved for a judgment on the pleadings, "[w]e may also consider any exhibits attached to and incorporated into the complaint and the answer, also construing them in the [plaintiffs'] favor."[2] "A trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss is subject to de novo review on appeal."[3]

         The complaint alleges that Green was a member of the School Board in November 2013, when the School Board voted to hire Gary Gibson as superintendent of the School District, entering into a contract for a three-year term in December 2013. In March 2015, the School Board voted to employ Green's daughter-in-law, Shonda Green, as a middle school principal in the School District. In September 2016, while Rufus Green was still acting as a member, the School Board voted to terminate Gibson's contract early, effective September 20, 2016. In November 2016, the School Board executed a contract with Albritton, employing her to serve a three-year term as superintendent.

         Green voted in favor of terminating Gibson's contract and hiring Albritton. The plaintiffs sought to challenge these acts and filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and for leave to file a writ of quo warranto. They argued that Green's challenged votes were unauthorized because they occurred after Green's daughter-in-law was hired as a principal in the School District, citing an anti-nepotism clause in OCGA § 20-2-51 (c) (4) (A). That Code subsection provides:

No person who has an immediate family member sitting on a local board of education or serving as the local school superintendent or as a principal, assistant principal, or system administrative staff in the local school system shall be eligible to serve as a member of such local board of education. As used in this paragraph, the term "immediate family member" means a spouse, child, sibling, or parent or the spouse of a child. . . .[4]

         The defendants filed a motion to dismiss or for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that Green was acting as an officer de facto during the votes in question. Following briefing and argument, the trial court granted the motion, giving rise to this appeal.

         The plaintiffs contend that the trial court erred (1) by applying the officer de facto doctrine on the pleadings without further factual development, (2) because Green vacated his office as a matter of law, and (3) by applying the officer de facto doctrine to Albritton. We disagree.

         1. Application of the officer de facto doctrine to Green based on the facts pleaded by the plaintiffs without further factual development. We begin with the general rule established by the officer de facto doctrine. "It is well settled in Georgia that, although a person may be absolutely ineligible to hold any civil office whatever in this state, yet his official acts, while holding a commission as a public officer, are valid as the acts of an officer de facto."[5] The official acts of such an office holder "are recognized as valid on grounds of public policy, and for the protection of those having official business to transact."[6]

The principle on which the whole doctrine . . . rests, is not how [officers] happen to act de facto, - whether the cause be an illegal appointment or election, or an illegal holding over, but [instead] it is the convenience of the public - the necessity of the thing - the impossibility of one always knowing when an officer to whom he goes on business of a ministerial character is legally in office, was properly elected or has held too long.[7]

         Thus, Georgia's courts long "have held that the fact that a person is ineligible to hold a particular office, or has failed to take an oath, does not prevent that person from being an officer de facto, and while de facto in such office, competent to act therein."[8]

         Here, the plaintiffs argue that the trial court prematurely applied the doctrine on the face of the pleadings because more factual development is necessary to decide whether the doctrine should be applied in this particular case. Specifically, they argue that the trial court should have considered whether Green acted "in good faith" and whether public policy weighs against application of the doctrine in this case. But all of the precedent regarding good faith cited by the plaintiffs merely references good faith in dicta explaining the public policy interests served by the de facto officer doctrine.[9] There is nothing about the scenario in this case that removes the normal policy considerations favoring the doctrine, [10] and none of the cases cited by the plaintiffs articulate a fact-based test based on the particular evidence in the case. Further, other Georgia cases have applied the doctrine without further factual development and without explicit reference to the "good faith" of the acting officer.[11]There is no allegation or implication of bad faith in this case, and in light of current precedent, we discern no error by the trial court in ruling on the defendants' motion on the pleadings.

         The plaintiffs also argue that because the officer de facto doctrine would not extend to Green if his original commission was fatally flawed ab initio, further factual development is required. But this exception only applies if the officer's original commission is facially void and, upon examination, "fades away without exposure to anything extrinsic to itself."[12] Here, by contrast, the plaintiffs' complaint alleges that Green was an "acting member" of the School Board, and his "term of office began in January 2013." The only defect alleged by the plaintiffs in the complaint or argued on appeal is the appointment of his daughter-in-law as a principal in the School District - an event that took place after his official commission.[13] The plaintiffs do not challenge Green's original commission; they only argue that he vacated his office as a matter of law when the anti-nepotism clause in OCGA § 20-2-51 (c) (4) (A) was violated. Thus, as alleged in the complaint and argued on appeal, there is no issue presented with respect to Green's original commission, nor any defect in his status as an office holder that would be apparent on the face of his commission to that office. Accordingly, even assuming as true the undisputed facts pleaded by the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs' suit was properly resolved on the pleadings.[14]

         2. Vacating office ...


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