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Ward-Poag v. Fulton County

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

July 2, 2019

WARD-POAG
v.
FULTON COUNTY.

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Hodges, Judge.

         In this appeal, we must decide whether Sandra Ward-Poag's failure to disclose a whistleblower claim[1] against Fulton County in her petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy until after the County moved for summary judgment in the whistleblower action precludes her claim under the doctrine of judicial estoppel. The Superior Court of Fulton County granted the County's summary judgment motion, finding that Ward-Poag was "judicially estopped from proceeding in [her] case" because her failure to disclose the claim was "intended to deceive her creditors[] and that her behavior has made a mockery of both this Court and the Bankruptcy Court." Ward-Poag appeals, arguing that the trial court erred because (1) her positions in the bankruptcy court and the trial court were not inconsistent, introduced no risk of inconsistent results, and did not threaten judicial integrity in view of her amended bankruptcy schedule disclosing her claim against the County; and (2) genuine issues of material fact remained concerning the County's argument that she intended to make a mockery of the judicial system. For the following reasons, we reverse.

Under Georgia law,
[s]ummary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant or denial of summary judgment, and we view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.

(Citation and punctuation omitted.) Kamara v. Henson, 340 Ga.App. 111 (796 S.E.2d 496) (2017). So viewed, the record reveals that the County hired Ward-Poag as the entertainment manager for the Wolf Creek Amphitheater in 2012.[2] In May 2013, Ward-Poag filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which was confirmed in March 2014 and required a payment plan that would conclude in March 2019.[3]

         While her bankruptcy petition was pending, Ward-Poag alleged numerous instances from September 2015 to August 2016 in which a Fulton County commissioner attempted to use the amphitheater for his private gain, including repeated demands for dates to promote his own concerts. Ward-Poag rejected the commissioner's requests and, as a result, she alleged that she was demoted and faced other forms of retaliation by the commissioner.[4] In August 2016, Ward-Poag sent ante litem notice of her whistleblower claim to the County. Thereafter, she filed the action at issue in this appeal in October 2016.[5]

         On September 5, 2017, the County filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that judicial estoppel barred Ward-Poag's claim because she failed to disclose her cause of action against the County as an asset in her bankruptcy proceeding.[6] Thereafter, Ward-Poag filed an amended bankruptcy schedule on October 2, 2017, in which she identified her cause of action against the County as an asset; the value listed for the claim was $1.00.[7] The trial court held a hearing on the County's motion on October 17, 2017, and orally granted the County's motion. Following additional briefing by the parties, the trial court entered a written order granting the County's motion on May 22, 2018 in which it relied upon Slater v. U.S. Steel Corp., 871 F.3d 1174 (11th Cir. 2017) and concluded that Ward-Poag "intended to deceive her creditors[] and that her behavior has made a mockery of both this Court and the Bankruptcy Court." This appeal followed.

         1. Ward-Poag first argues that the trial court erred in granting the County's motion for summary judgment because her positions in the bankruptcy court and the trial court were not inconsistent, introduced no risk of inconsistent results, and did not threaten judicial integrity given her amended bankruptcy schedule disclosing her claim against the County. We agree.

         Generally, Georgia courts follow the federal doctrine of judicial estoppel. See Nat. Bldg. Maintenance Specialists v. Hayes, 288 Ga.App. 25, 26 (653 S.E.2d 772) (2007). "Under the doctrine, a party is precluded from asserting a position in a judicial proceeding which is inconsistent with a position previously successfully asserted by it in a prior proceeding." (Emphasis supplied.) Id.

The essential function and justification of judicial estoppel is to prevent the use of intentional self-contradiction as a means of obtaining unfair advantage in a forum provided for suitors seeking justice. The primary purpose of the doctrine is not to protect the litigants, but to protect the integrity of the judiciary. The doctrine is directed against those who would attempt to manipulate the court system through the calculated assertion of divergent sworn positions in judicial proceedings and is designed to prevent parties from making a mockery of justice through inconsistent pleadings.

(Citation omitted.) Kamara, supra, 340 Ga.App. at 112 (1); accord Johnson v. Trust Co. Bank, 223 Ga.App. 650, 651 (478 S.E.2d 629) (1996).

Accordingly,
the doctrine is commonly applied to preclude a bankruptcy debtor from pursuing a damages claim that [she] failed to include in [her] assets in the bankruptcy petition because a failure to reveal assets, including unliquidated tort claims, operates as a denial that such assets exist, deprives the bankruptcy court of the full information it needs to evaluate and rule upon a ...

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