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Cowen v. Clayton County

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 3, 2019


          Melton, Chief Justice.

         Linda S. Cowen, a Clayton County State Court judge since December 1995, filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, in which she sought, among other things, over $120, 000 in back pay from Clayton County and several of its county commissioners[1] for allegedly violating Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. VII, Par. V ("All judges shall receive compensation and allowances as provided by law. . . . An incumbent's salary, allowance, or supplement shall not be decreased during the incumbent's term of office."). More specifically, Cowen claimed that the County had been improperly calculating her compensation under County Ordinance 30-4 (the "Supplemental Ordinance") and Local Law 2006 Ga. Laws 926 passed by the General Assembly (the "Local Law"), [2] which, she alleged, resulted in an illegal reduction in her overall compensation each year between 2007 and 2017. She also alleged that, when the County repealed the Supplemental Ordinance effective December 20, 2016, the County, once again, illegally reduced her compensation in violation of Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. VII, Par. V.

         The trial court rejected all of Cowen's claims, concluding in part that: (1) Cowen's mandamus action was barred by gross laches; (2) even if the mandamus action was not barred, it was subject to dismissal because mandamus was not an appropriate vehicle through which Cowen could seek her back pay; and (3) even if mandamus were an appropriate vehicle, the mandamus action was without merit.

         Cowen appeals, and, for the reasons that follow, we conclude that (1) some, but not all, of Cowen's claims for back pay were time barred; and (2) the trial court erred in concluding that mandamus was not an appropriate vehicle here; but (3) the trial court properly denied the claim for mandamus. Accordingly, we affirm.

         1. Cowen claims that the trial court erred when it determined that her mandamus action was barred by gross laches. In its order, the trial court concluded that, because Cowen waited until 2017 to file her mandamus action, which included some claims for back pay dating as far back as 2007, then all of her claims for back pay were barred by gross laches. As explained more fully below, this broad conclusion by the trial court was incorrect.

         Because mandamus is a quasi-equitable remedy, such an action "can be barred by gross laches." (Citation omitted.) Marsh v. Clarke Cty. Sch. Dist., 292 Ga. 28, 30 (732 S.E.2d 443) (2012); OCGA § 9-3-3 ("[C]ourts of equity may interpose an equitable bar whenever, from the lapse of time and laches of the complainant, it would be inequitable to allow a party to enforce his legal rights."). See also West v. Fulton Cty., 267 Ga. 456, 458 n. 3 (479 S.E.2d 722) (1997) ("[M]andamus as a remedy may not lie where an applicant is guilty of gross laches or has permitted an unreasonable period of time to elapse") (citation omitted). However, in reaching its conclusion that the action here was barred, the trial court ignored the two-year statute of limitations of OCGA § 9-3-22 that actually applies in this case. In this regard, OCGA § 9-3-22 provides in relevant part:

[A]ll actions for the recovery of wages, overtime, or damages and penalties accruing under laws respecting the payment of wages and overtime shall be brought within two years after the right of action has accrued.

See City of Atlanta v. Adams, 256 Ga. 620, 620-621 (351 S.E.2d 444) (1987) (two-year statute of limitations of OCGA § 9-3-22 applied to claims for back pay by firefighters who were paid pursuant to municipal ordinance). Sea also Buskirk v. State, 267 Ga. 769 (2) (482 S.E.2d 286) (1997); Milhollin v. Salomon Smith Barney, Inc., 272 Ga.App. 267 (1) (612 S.E.2d 72) (2005). This two-year statute of limitations applies to claims for the recovery of back pay where, as here, a public officer's compensation is fixed by law. See Johnson v. Brooks, 139 Ga. 787, 791 (78 SE 37) (1913) (public officer's "compensation belongs to the office, and is an incident of his office, and he is entitled to it . . . because the law attaches it to the office") (citation and punctuation omitted).

         Because it is undisputed that Cowen's compensation as a state court judge is determined by state law, [3] the Local Law, and the Supplemental Ordinance, and that her claims for back pay are rooted in the interpretation of these laws, Cowen's claims are subject to the two-year limitations period contained in OCGA § 9-3-22, and any claims for back pay that accrued more than two years before Cowen filed her mandamus action on October 6, 2017, are time barred.[4] See Adams, supra, 256 Ga. at 820.

         That being said, while the claims that arose before October 6, 2015 would be barred by the applicable statute of limitations, this would not necessarily prevent Cowen from pursuing claims that were, in fact, timely raised within the applicable limitations period. See Clover Realty Co. v. J. L. Todd Auction Co., 240 Ga. 124, 126 (4) (239 S.E.2d 682) (1977) ("Delay alone is never enough to show laches where there is an applicable statute of limitation."). And because the County has failed to show harm from any delay in the filing of claims that fell within the two-year limitations period, [5] Cowen was free to pursue her claims for back pay that arose on or after October 6, 2015. Accordingly, to the extent that the trial court determined that all of Cowen's claims were barred by gross laches, this ruling was in error.

         2. Cowen next claims that the trial court erred by concluding that she could not petition the court for a writ of mandamus because she was improperly attempting to undo the County's already completed acts of allegedly underpaying her. See, e.g., Hilton Const. Co., Inc. v. Rockdale Cty. Bd. of Ed., 245 Ga. 533, 540 (4) (266 S.E.2d 157) (1980) ("Mandamus is not the proper remedy to compel the undoing of acts already done or the correction of wrongs already perpetrated . . . . [E]ven [where] the action taken [by the county] was clearly illegal," mandamus "is the remedy for inaction of a public official") (citation omitted). We agree with Cowen that the trial court was once again incorrect.

         This Court has held that actions for the recovery of compensation that, by law, one public official is required to pay to another, may be pursued through mandamus. See, e.g., Lee v. Peach Cty. Bd. of Comm'rs, 269 Ga. 380 (497 S.E.2d 562) (1998); Best v. Maddox, 185 Ga. 78 (194 SE 578 (1937). See also Chatham Cty. v. Massey, 299 Ga. 595 (791 S.E.2d 85) (2016); Inagawa v. Fayette Cty., 291 Ga. 715 (732 S.E.2d 421) (2012); OCGA § 9-6-20 ("All official duties should be faithfully performed, and whenever, from any cause, a defect of legal justice would ensue from a failure to perform or from improper performance, the writ of mandamus may issue to compel a due performance if there is no other specific legal remedy for the legal rights."). Contrary to the trial court's analysis, Cowen's mandamus action was not designed to "undo" the already completed acts of the County in supposedly underpaying her, but to compel the County to correct its inaction in failing to properly pay her under the laws that govern her compensation.

         3. Because Cowen was able to pursue her timely claims for back pay through mandamus, we must address the propriety of the trial court's decision to deny the writ of mandamus with respect to those claims. In analyzing the trial court's decision, we bear in mind that

[m]andamus is an extraordinary remedy that is available only where a litigant seeks to require a public official to perform an act or fulfill a duty that is required by law and where there is no other specific legal remedy. OCGA § 9-6-20. A writ of mandamus should only be granted where there is a clear legal right to the relief being sought. . . . [or where] [t]here may . . . have been a gross abuse of the public official's discretion.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Fein v. Bessen, 300 Ga. 25, 29 (793 S.E.2d 76) (2016). Further, "[t]he duty which a mandamus complainant seeks to have enforced must be a duty arising by law, either expressly or by necessary implication; and the law must not only authorize the act to be done, but must require its performance.") (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Bland Farms, LLC v. Ga. Dept. of Agriculture, 281 Ga. 192, 193 (637 S.E.2d 37) (2006). Thus, for the timely claims for back pay, we must determine (a) whether the County compensated Cowen consistent with the requirements of the applicable state statutory law, Local Law, and Supplemental Ordinance, and (b) even if it did, whether Cowen had a clear legal right to be paid more, notwithstanding these provisions, pursuant to the requirements of Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. VII, Par. V.

         (a) Proper Calculation of ...

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