Ga. SC reverses ruling in favor of city, mayor over firings

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Mar 6, 2012


ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - The Georgia Supreme Court last month ruled that a lower court was wrong to rule in favor of Greenville Mayor James Bray in firing two acting city employees.

Bray, after being sworn into office in January 2008, had told members of the city council that he wanted to terminate Johnnie Owens, the acting city clerk, and Darryl Williams, the acting chief of police.

The mayor raised the issue with the council because, months earlier, the city passed a resolution stating that "all hiring, firing, raises and promotions are to be initiated by the mayor, but must be affirmed in regular session of city council by the majority vote."

The council said it was concerned about allowing the terminations, and wanted to act slowly and with caution.

Soon after, Bray went ahead and fired Owens and Williams, issuing letters of termination to both. In their places, the mayor appointed Everline Clay as city clerk and Wayne Frazier as chief of police.

Owens and Williams then sued Bray and the City for wrongful termination and concomitant damages.

Following a hearing, a trial court found it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case because it presented a "purely political question."

Instead, the court granted the City's and Bray's motions for summary judgment, finding that, despite the mayor's actions, Owens and Williams' terms had "naturally expired."

Owens and Williams appealed to the state's high court.

The Court, in its unanimous Feb. 27 ruling, reversed the lower court's decision.

Justice Harold D. Melton, who authored the Court's 10-page opinion, explained that the trial court had proper jurisdiction over the case and that questions of material fact and law remained.

"In this case, the trial court was presented with a question of wrongful termination which may be decided by the application of the facts and the reading of the city's governing documents in a straightforward and impartial manner," Melton wrote. "As a result, this matter does not present a purely political question, and the trial court erred in its determination otherwise."

The Court noted the record seems to support the trial court's determination that Owens and Williams were serving annual terms.

However, it pointed out, the record does not pinpoint exactly when such annual terms began or expired.

Therefore, it is unclear whether Owens and Williams were dismissed before or after their terms had "naturally expired," the Court said.

"Moreover, even if their terms had expired, there is no indication that the trial court took into consideration what rights, if any, Owens and Williams may have had as 'holdover officials' in their appointed positions," Melton wrote.

The Court also determined that Bray, along with the City, was not entitled to official immunity.

"In this case, Owens and Williams have maintained throughout that Bray unilaterally terminated them from their position without authority of law because the city passed a 2007 resolution requiring that the mayor get city council approval prior to any such termination," Melton explained.

"At the very least, a question of fact remains whether Bray acted 'without authority of law' by failing to comply with this directive."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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