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City of College Park v. Clayton County

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 24, 2019


          Melton, Chief Justice.

         This is the second appearance of this case before this Court. In the prior appeal, Clayton Co. v. City of College Park, 301 Ga. 653 (803 S.E.2d 63) (2017) ("Clayton County I"), we characterized the controversy and set forth the facts as follows:

In this case involving the taxation of alcoholic beverages at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (the "Airport"), Clayton County appeals from the trial court's order denying its motion for judgment on the pleadings and granting the motion for partial summary judgment filed by the City of College Park. In seeking a judgment on the pleadings, Clayton County asserted, among other things, that the City of College Park's claims were barred by sovereign immunity. . . . The Airport, which is owned and operated by the City of Atlanta, is located primarily within Clayton County (the "County"). Of the many businesses located within the Airport, some are located in the unincorporated sections of the County while other businesses are located in the County within the incorporated limits of the City of College Park (the "City"). In its complaint, the City asserts that since the 1983 enactment of OCGA § 3-8-1 (regulation and taxation of alcoholic beverages at public airports), it has not been receiving the proper amount of alcoholic beverage taxes to which it is entitled, and that the County improperly infringed on its authority to tax by instructing vendors to remit to the County 50% of the taxes due from the sale of alcohol in those portions of the Airport located within the City limits.
The City and County disagree on the interpretation of OCGA § 3-8-1 (e) in light of the articles of the Georgia Constitution relating to the taxation power of counties and municipalities. The City asserts that, pursuant to OCGA § 3-8-1 (e), only it has authority to levy and collect taxes on the sale or use of alcoholic beverages within the corporate limits of the City, while the County can only levy and collect those taxes in the unincorporated areas of the County, and that within these parameters, the parties are then entitled to an equal division of all of the alcoholic beverage tax proceeds collected. The County asserts that OCGA § 3-8-1 (e) can only be construed to provide that the County is entitled to 50% of all alcohol tax revenues derived from within the City and 100% of the tax revenues derived from the unincorporated areas of the County.
When the parties could not resolve their dispute, the City filed a complaint naming as defendants the County and two businesses that operate within the Airport, Mack II, Inc. and General Wholesale Company (the "taxpayer defendants"). The complaint sought an interlocutory and permanent injunction against the County (as well as the taxpayer defendants), and a declaratory judgment as to the City's and County's division and collection of alcoholic beverage taxes, as well as the taxpayer defendants' payment of those taxes. The complaint also asserted claims against the County for an accounting, unjust enrichment, attorney fees, and damages. The taxpayer defendants filed a counterclaim for interpleader against the City, a cross-claim for interpleader against the County, and a petition for declaratory judgment.
The County filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that the City's complaint and the taxpayer defendants' cross-claims fail to state a claim and are barred by sovereign immunity, laches, OCGA § 36-1-4 ("A county is not liable to suit for any cause of action unless made so by statute"), and OCGA § 36-11-1 (claims against counties must be presented within 12 months after they accrue or become payable). The City moved for partial summary judgment on its claims for declaratory judgment.
Following a hearing, the trial court denied the County's motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that sovereign immunity does not apply to the City's claims or the taxpayer defendants' cross-claims for indemnity and contribution, that the doctrine of laches does not bar the City's claims, and that to the extent the statute of limitation in OCGA § 36-11-1 applies, "it would merely limit the time window or amount of College Park's damages" and not foreclose recovery altogether. The court granted the City's motion for partial summary judgment on the declaratory judgment counts, finding that the Alcoholic Beverage Code, OCGA § 3-3-1 et seq., permits the City to impose alcoholic beverage tax only within its municipal limits and the County to impose such a tax only in the unincorporated areas of the County, that neither can impose and collect alcoholic beverage taxes within the other's taxing jurisdiction, and that the taxpayer defendants must submit tax monies only to the entity authorized to collect the funds. The court found further that once the City and the County have exercised the power to impose and collect taxes within these guidelines, OCGA § 3-8-1 (e) requires that they then remit to the other half of the collected proceeds.

Id. at 653-655.

         Ultimately, we vacated this judgment and remanded the case for consideration of the "threshold question of whether sovereign immunity applies at all in suits between political subdivisions of the same sovereign (like the City and the County)." Id. at 656 (2).[1] Though the City had already filed claims for mandamus against County officials in their official capacities in its original complaint, on remand, the City amended its complaint, adding purported mandamus claims against three officials of the County in each one's individual capacity. After consideration, the trial court entered two orders. First, the trial court granted interpleader relief sought by Mack II, Incorporated and General Wholesale Company against the City and the County.[2] Eleven days later, the trial court entered an order finding that the County was entitled to sovereign immunity from all of the claims brought by the City, except its constitutional takings claim.[3] As part of this ruling, the trial court held that sovereign immunity barred all of the mandamus claims against three County officials, even in their official capacities. Based on all of these rulings, the trial court granted the County's Second Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, the procedural vehicle by which it raised its immunity arguments on remand.

         1. There are several issues in this case, but we will start with the broadest, and perhaps most important, consideration - whether sovereign immunity applies at all to this suit between the City and the County, two political subdivisions of the sovereign State of Georgia. Considering the fundamental nature of sovereign immunity and its parameters as the doctrine was understood in Georgia at the time it became part of our State's Constitution, we conclude that sovereign immunity does not apply to bar the current lawsuit.

         (a) In considering the issues in this case, we adhere to principles of Georgia constitutional interpretation. For example,

"[w]e interpret a constitutional provision according to the original public meaning of its text," Olevik[v. State, 302 Ga. 228, 235 (2) (c) (i) (806 S.E.2d 505) (2017)], which requires considering its context. Where, as here, a constitutional provision incorporates a pre-existing right, the provision cannot be said to create that right - it merely secures and protects it. See Nunn v. State, 1 Ga. 243, 249 (1846) . . . And where the right enshrined in the constitution was one found at common law, that constitutional right is understood with reference to the common law, absent some clear textual indication to the contrary. See Virginia v. Moore, 553 U.S. 164, 168 (128 S.Ct. 1598, 170 L.Ed.2d 559) (2008) ("We look to the statutes and common law of the founding era to determine the norms that the Fourth Amendment was meant to preserve."); United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, 654 (18 S.Ct. 456, 42 LE 890) (1898) ("The language of the Constitution, as has been well said, could not be understood without reference to the common law."); Cent. of Ga. R. Co., 109 Ga. [716, 728 (35 SE 37) (1900) ("In construing a constitution, a safe rule is to give its words such significance as they have at common law; especially if there is nothing in the instrument to indicate an intention by its framers that the language in question should have a different construction.").

Elliott v. State, 305 Ga. 179, 212 (IV) (B) (824 S.E.2d 265) (2019). This principle has importance here because sovereign immunity was initially incorporated into the Georgia Constitution of 1945 by an amendment ratified in 1974. Our Constitution did not create sovereign immunity; instead, it incorporated sovereign immunity from the common law. Therefore, we must look to the understanding of the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity in Georgia by 1974 - the date at which Georgia gave the doctrine constitutional status. And, though the relevant text of our State Constitution regarding sovereign immunity has undergone certain revisions leading up to its current form in the Georgia Constitution of 1983 as amended in 1991, those provisions generally address only the waiver of sovereign immunity.

         We have previously recognized the continuous constitutional reservation of the common law of sovereign immunity, recounting:

In November 1974, Georgia voters ratified an amendment adding the doctrine of sovereign immunity to the Georgia Constitution of 1945, and the 1974 amendment was carried forward into the Georgia Constitution of 1976. See Ga. Const. of 1976, Art. VI, Sec. V, Par. I. The 1974 amendment authorized the General Assembly "to create and establish a State Court of Claims with jurisdiction to try and dispose of cases involving claims for injury to damage, except the taking or private property for public purposes, against the State of Georgia, its agencies or political subdivisions, as the General Assembly may provide by law." It further provided: "Nothing contained herein shall constitute a waiver of the immunity of the State from suit, but such sovereign immunity is expressly reserved except to the extent of any waiver of immunity provided in this Constitution and such waiver or qualification of immunity as is now or may hereafter be provided by act of the General Assembly." Later, [t]he doctrine of sovereign immunity retained its constitutional status in the Constitution of 1983, which provided at its adoption that "[s]overeign immunity extends to the state and all of its departments and agencies." Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX (as originally adopted). The Constitution of 1983, however, changed the means by which sovereign immunity could be waived. The General Assembly had never exercised its authority under the 1974 amendment to establish a State Court of Claims, see R. Perry Sentell, Jr., Local Government Tort Liability: The Summer of '92, 9 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 405, 407 (II) (B) (1993) (hereinafter Sentell, Tort Liability), and so, the Constitution of 1983 omitted any reference to a State Court of Claims. Although it retained the principle that sovereign immunity could be waived by the Constitution itself or an act of the General Assembly, the Constitution of 1983 added that a subsequently enacted statute would waive sovereign immunity only if it "specifically provides that sovereign immunity is hereby waived and the extent of the waiver." Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX (as originally adopted). The Constitution of 1983 also waived sovereign immunity in suits for breach of a written contract, as well as in suits for monetary damages to the extent that such damages were covered by liability insurance. Id. See also Sentell, Tort Liability, supra, at 407-408 (II) (C) (discussing changes worked by Constitution of 1983). This Court recognized the Constitution of 1983 as a continuation for the State of the constitutional reservation of the sovereign immunity that had been recognized by the Georgia courts since the Founding. . . . [T]he General Assembly [later] proposed to revise Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX, see Ga. L. 1990, p. 2435, and in November 1990, the voters approved the proposal. Effective as of January 1, 1991, this constitutional amendment repealed the provision waiving sovereign immunity to the extent of liability insurance, and it added a provision that, for the first time, expressly authorized the General Assembly to enact a State Tort Claims Act, among other changes. See Curtis v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. System of Ga., 262 Ga. 226, 227 (416 S.E.2d 510) (1992). See also Sentell, Tort Liability, supra, at 411-412, 415-423 (III). But most important for our purposes, the 1991 amendment carried forward the constitutional reservation of sovereign immunity at common law as it was understood in Georgia, using the same language as the original Constitution of 1983 to reaffirm that "sovereign immunity extends to the state and all of its departments and agencies." Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX (e) (as amended). See also Gilbert[ v. Richardson, 264 Ga. 744, 746-747 (2) (452 S.E.2d 476) (1994)]. Likewise, the 1991 amendment also retained that sovereign immunity could only be waived by the Constitution itself or the General Assembly, and as to the General Assembly, only by way of a law that "specifically provides that sovereign immunity is thereby waived and the extent of such waiver." Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX (e) (as amended). See also Gilbert, 264 Ga. at 748 (3).

(Footnotes omitted) Lathrop v. Deal, 301 Ga. 408, 420-423 (II) (B) (801 S.E.2d 867) (2017).

(b) With the foregoing discussion in mind, we first look to the extent to which sovereign immunity at common law was understood (in Georgia specifically and in traditional English and American law more generally) to apply only in suits against the sovereign by citizens (as opposed to suits by subdivisions ...

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