This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
In a decision, which is sure to cause waves in the world of Georgia municipal litigation, the Georgia Supreme Court recently narrowed the previously understood scope of a Georgia law requiring persons contemplating suing a city to give the city advance notice before actually filing the lawsuit.
The law, known formally by lawyers as the municipal ante litem notice statute, states that anybody with a claim for money damages against a city because of injuries to person or property has to give notice to the city within six months of the event that caused the injury before they are allowed to file a lawsuit. Importantly, the law provides a specific list of items that must be included in this notice to the city, including “the negligence which caused the injury.” According to the Georgia Supreme Court, this specific requirement turns out to be pretty important.
West v. City of Albany
Searless West, an employee of the city of Albany’s utility board, reported some financial irregularities in the way some cash payments were handled to her superiors. A few days later, the city terminated her employment and she filed suit against the city in 2015. Her lawsuit against the city included claims under the Georgia Whistleblower Act—basically claiming she had been fired because of her reporting the financial irregularities.
The Georgia Whistleblower Act was initially enacted in 1993, but has been amended a few times since its original enactment. Today, the act seeks to provide protections to public employees who provide information concerning the possible existence of any activity constituting fraud, waste and abuse by the public employer. Importantly, the act today allows public employees to take action against public employers for a number of potential causes including retaliatory terminations, suspensions and demotions.
The city sought to have West’s suit dismissed, claiming that West had not sent proper notice to the city under the municipal ante litem notice statute of her intent to sue the city. There has been a long history of cases in Georgia’s courts that have applied the municipal ante litem notice statute to a whole manner of situations in the past. In this case, Albany sought to rely on these cases as proof that West was required to comply with the municipal ante litem notice statute as well.
These particular cases that the city relied on litter the history of our state’s courts and include situations where the municipal ante litem notice statute has been applied to cases of defamation, inverse condemnation, illegal arrests and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
After some questions were raised in a federal district court that required interpretation of the state’s courts, the Georgia Supreme Court stepped in to take a crack at whether West was required to provide a notice to the city under the municipal ante litem notice statute.
In deciding on West’s issue, the Georgia Supreme Court, however, did not just limit its decision to the Georgia Whistleblower Act. The court analyzed the municipal ante litem notice statute and looked back at that specific language in the statute stating that the notice was required in cases for money damages against a city “on account of injuries to person or property.” Additionally, the court noted that the actual notice was required to have a description of “the negligence which caused the injury.”
After specifically honing in on the above-mentioned language, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the municipal ante litem notice statute is only required to be followed on claims involving an “injury sustained as a result of a negligent act or omission.” The court held that West’s claims against the city arose from an “act of retaliation” which, by its nature, would have had to be an intentional act and thus did not fall under the auspices of the municipal ante litem notice statute.
The court’s ruling may turn some long-held understandings of the municipal ante litem notice statute on their respective heads. By holding that the municipal ante litem notice statute only is required for injuries that have come about because of negligence, potential litigants will no longer be required to file advanced litigation notices for a whole host of potential claims that arose because of intentional acts.
Unfortunately, for Georgia’s cities, the ruling may cause some increases to the costs of litigation for cities across the state. We will have to wait and see all of the potential repercussions.