Laurie Webb Daniel represents Agnes Scott and campus police in a case brought by a woman who claims she was falsely arrested on allegations she assaulted a student there. (File photo)
Defendants on the losing end of a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision have asked the court to vacate its ruling on the ground that it was issued too late.
The unanimous June 16 decision said that three campus police officers at Agnes Scott College are not entitled to the sort of immunity afforded state police officers. The officers from the Decatur women’s school are defendants in a case brought by a woman who claims she was falsely arrested on allegations that she assaulted a student there.
In a June 26 motion for reconsideration, the defendants argue that because the court did not rule on the case within the time limit imposed by the state constitution, known as the “two-term rule,” the Court of Appeals ruling in the defendants’ favor should be affirmed automatically.
The two-term rule, which directs the state’s appellate courts to decide their cases within two of their three annual terms, drives the appellate courts’ workflow, often resulting in the most difficult cases being decided near the end of each term. An unusual factor in the Agnes Scott case is that the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case relatively early; the justices heard it during a special sitting at Mercer University in November, rather than at the court in January as originally planned.
The suit was brought by Amanda Hartley, who was a student at the University of Tennessee when she was arrested based on accusations of sexual assault that were shown to be false. Hartley was held in custody for more than three weeks before being released on bond; DeKalb prosecutors later dropped the case. Her lawyer, Lloyd Bell of Atlanta, has said his client at one point made a settlement demand of $10 million.
A divided Court of Appeals said that the Agnes Scott police officers Hartley sued were acting in the service of the state and thus had immunity under the Georgia Tort Claims Act. The court also said the college itself could not be liable.
The Supreme Court agreed to review just the portion of the appeals court ruling giving the officers immunity, which drew an amicus brief from state attorney general’s office supporting the plaintiff’s position that the officers weren’t entitled to immunity. Justice David Nahmias’ opinion for the court said a look at the Georgia Tort Claims Act as a whole showed that the Agnes Scott officers were not entitled to immunity under the statute. He said the statute set up a system that makes sense only if the person alleged to have committed the tort was working for a state government entity.
The defense motion for reconsideration was filed by Atlanta lawyers Laurie Webb Daniel and Joshua Bosin at Holland & Knight and David Ladner and Brian Trulock at Bendin Sumrall & Ladner. They argue that the Supreme Court’s June decision did not make the constitutional deadline because it was not rendered until after the close of the January 2014 court term, which ended in mid-April. The state constitutional language says appellate courts must “dispose of every case at the term for which it is entered on the court’s docket for hearing or at the next term.” Because oral argument was held in November, during the September 2013 term, the court had only until the end of the next term, the January term, to rule, the defendants claim.
“We’re just going on a very plain language analysis, and we couldn’t find anything otherwise,” said Daniel, who is frequently called on to handle appeals in high-stakes matters. She added that the situation was unusual, so she didn’t think of asking for an automatic affirmance when the January 2014 term ended in April.
Bell, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said the scheduling of oral argument in November—with the parties’ consent, he added—doesn’t change that the case was docketed for hearing in the January term within the meaning of the rule. “We don’t think all seven Supreme Court justices goofed, as the defense is suggesting,” said Bell.
The defendants point out that granting their request won’t create bad law for other cases: The appeals court opinion in their favor reversed by the high court was joined in full by only three of the seven judges on the case, with a fourth judge agreeing with the result only, meaning the opinion is binding only on the parties to the case. “Lower courts no doubt would be guided by the analysis of this court, as expressed in its unanimous opinion in this case, even if reconsideration were granted based on the two-term rule,” add the defendants.
The case is Hartley v. Agnes Scott, No. S13G1152.