ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) – The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that a trial court properly denied a petition filed by a tenured Clayton County judge who alleged she was owed $120,000 in backpay.
On Sept. 3, the Supreme Court of Georgia sided with a lower court and affirmed that Judge Linda S. Cowen is not owed what she said is considered backpay after an alleged miscalculation in her suit against Clayton County. Cowen, who has served as Clayton County State Court judge since the end of 1995, filed a writ of mandamus stating that she was owed $120,000 in back pay after the county and many of its commissioners allegedly infringed the state's constitution.
The section of the constitution Cowen cited states: “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,” according to ruling.
Cowen said the alleged miscalculation led to an unlawful reduction in her pay from 2007 to 2017. She also alleged when the county revoked the Supplemental Ordinance, which went into effect in December 2016, the county unlawfully lowered her pay again.
A lower court ruled with the county and against Cowen citing that the mandamus action was barred by gross laches. Cowen appealed.
"We conclude that some, but not all, of Cowen’s claims for back pay were time barred; and the trial court erred in concluding that mandamus was not an appropriate vehicle here; but the trial court properly denied the claim for mandamus," Chief Justice Harold D. Melton wrote. "Accordingly, we affirm."
Melton wrote that not all of Cowen's claims were barred.
"In reaching its conclusion that the action here was barred, the trial court ignored the two-year statute of limitations of OCGA section 9-3-22 applies to this case,” Melton wrote. " ... Cowen was free to pursue her claims for back pay that arose on or after Oct. 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."
Melton also sided with Cowen in her argument that the lower court erred when it determined she couldn’t ask the court for a writ of mandamus as that was her attempt to unravel the county’s alleged behavior that was already conducted.
"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,” he wrote.
Still, when it came to the denial of the writ of mandamus, Melton said Cowen was properly given the amount of $152,110.43 in 2015 and $160,801.75 in 2016, which is what she is entitled to.
“She received all compensation and allowances as provided by law, and her salary did not increase in any way during her term of office. In fact, her salary increased from 2015 to 2016,” Melton wrote.
As for 2017, the Supreme Court said while Cowen’s general salary went down after the Supplemental Ordinance was revoked, there is still no proof of constitutional violation because it did not occur while Cowen was in office.