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Cook v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 1, 2019

SMITH et al.

          McFADDEN, P. J., RICKMAN and MARKLE, JJ.


         This appeal challenges a trial court order granting summary judgment to the members of a county board of education on the basis of sovereign immunity. Because the trial court correctly ruled that the claims against the board members are barred by sovereign immunity, we affirm.

         1. Record citations.

         The rules of this court require that in an appellant's brief, "[r]ecord and transcript citations shall be to the volume or part of the record or transcript and the page numbers that appear on the appellate record or transcript as sent from the trial court." Court of Appeals Rule 25 (a) (1). The appellant's brief in this case, however, does not contain cites to the appropriate volumes or parts of the appellate record, and instead references trial court case numbers and records. The appellees' brief adopts the appellant's faulty method and likewise fails to make appropriate citations to the appellate record. See Court of Appeals Rules 25 (b) (1) & (c) (2).

         The rules of this court "were created, not to provide an obstacle, but to aid parties in presenting their arguments in a manner most likely to be fully and efficiently comprehended by this court." In re Estate of Russell, 347 Ga.App. 258, 259 (1) (819 S.E.2d 68) (2018) (citation and punctuation omitted). "[B]riefs that fail to provide proper citations can hinder this [c]ourt's consideration of the parties' arguments on appeal." May v. S. E. GA Ford, Inc., 344 Ga.App. 459 n. 1 (811 S.E.2d 14) (2018) (citations and punctuation omitted). And such deficient briefs "are not merely an inconvenience [but may constitute] grounds for refusing to consider a party's contentions." Id. (citation and punctuation omitted). "While we will nonetheless review [the] claims of error to the extent we are able to ascertain them, [the parties] will not be granted relief should we err in construing [their] nonconforming appellate brief[s]." In re Estate of Russell, supra (citation and punctuation omitted).

         2. Facts and procedural posture.

         In April 2009, Henry Cook, a member of the Randolph County Board of Education, filed an action against three other board members - Don Smith, Dymple McDonald, and James Mock (collectively "the board members"). Cook sought injunctive relief regarding the board members' selection of Mock to serve as board chairman prior to the expiration of Cook's term in that role. The trial court subsequently held Cook in contempt for violating a court order and also found that a local law at issue in the case, which concerned procedures for selecting the board chairperson, was not unconstitutional. Cook appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court's contempt ruling but reversed its constitutionality ruling, finding that the law in question was not constitutional as applied to Cook. See Cook v. Smith, 288 Ga. 409 (705 S.E.2d 847) (2010).

         On the return of the case to the trial court, Cook sought, among other things, to enforce a purported settlement of the case allegedly voted on by the board and to recover attorney fees. The board members moved for summary judgment on, among other grounds, the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In the meantime, Smith and McDonald had filed their own lawsuit against the Randolph County School District, seeking certain injunctive relief. Although Cook was not a party to that lawsuit, the trial court nevertheless consolidated it with Cook's action against the board members. The trial court did not rule on the board members' motion for summary judgment in Cook's case, but denied Cook's claims to enforce the purported board vote of settlement and for attorney fees, and ordered certain relief in the consolidated lawsuit to which Cook was not a party.

         Cook appealed to this court, and we transferred the case to our Supreme Court on the basis that it involves mandamus relief which was, at that time, within the sole jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.[1] The Supreme Court transferred the case back to this court, finding that it does not involve mandamus and instead involves injunctive relief. This court then remanded the case to the trial court, noting that the trial court had not ruled on the issue of sovereign immunity raised by the board members and directing the trial court to hold a hearing and rule on whether sovereign immunity bars Cook's claims. After a hearing, the trial court found that the claims are barred by sovereign immunity and granted summary judgment to the board members. Cook appeals.

         3. Sovereign immunity.

         Cook contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the board members. We disagree.

         "Suits against public employees in their official capacities are in reality suits against the state and, therefore, involve sovereign immunity." Cameron v. Lang, 274 Ga. 122, 126 (3) (549 S.E.2d 341) (2001) (citations and punctuation omitted). "Simply put, the constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity forbids our courts [from] entertain[ing] a lawsuit against the [s]tate without its consent." Lathrop v. Deal, 301 Ga. 408 (801 S.E.2d 867) (2017). Accord Cameron, supra (sovereign immunity protects all levels of government from legal action unless the immunity has been waived).

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 [c]ourt has repeatedly ruled on the scope of this provision. The plain and unambiguous text of the 1991 ...

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