Five Albany teachers and school administrators who worked in a special education program and were put on the state Child Abuse Registry because some of their students allegedly groped other students have lost their suit because of sovereign immunity of the state and procedural details with a ruling Monday from the Georgia Supreme Court.
“This case involves a variety of constitutional challenges to Georgia’s Child Abuse Registry that a group of high school teachers and administrators filed directly in superior court after their names were put on the Registry. We cannot properly reach the merits of those challenges, however—and neither could the trial court—because some of the claims are barred by sovereign immunity and the remaining ones should have been raised in the then-pending administrative proceeding also initiated by the teachers and administrators,” Presiding Justice David Nahmias wrote for a unanimous court.
“Accordingly, we reverse the part of the trial court’s order concluding that the court could decide the merits of the challenges, vacate the part of the order declaring the Registry statutes and rules to be unconstitutional and granting injunctive relief, and remand with direction to dismiss the case,” Nahmias said.
“Because every component of the plaintiffs’ case should have been dismissed by the superior court on at least one of the grounds discussed above, we reverse that court’s judgment to the contrary and vacate the judgment to the extent it addressed the merits, granted the plaintiffs injunctive relief, and declared the Registry statutes and rules to be unconstitutional,” Nahmias said. “The trial court should not have addressed the constitutionality of the Registry statutes and rules, and we express no opinion on those questions in this case.”
Nahmias included the consolation embedded in other recent sovereign immunity decisions. While state officials can’t be sued in their official capacities, they can be sued individually.
The lawsuit was filed by five Dougherty County teachers and school administrators who worked in the special education program at Albany High School. Following two incidents in which several students allegedly groped other students, a child abuse investigator for the Dougherty County Division of Family and Children Services “substantiated” reports of child abuse on the basis that the five teachers and school administrators were inadequately supervising the students in the classroom and lunchroom, according to the opinion. All five were placed on the Child Abuse Registry.
“Having reviewed the record, we can understand why the plaintiffs were so upset about the way in which their names came to be put on the Child Abuse Registry and why they wanted to seek prompt relief in the superior court,” Nahmias said. “But having initiated the administrative process available to challenge their listings—the process they were required to use to assert any as-applied constitutional challenges—it is clear under this court’s precedents that they could not jump off that path and head straight to court, even with facial constitutional challenges, nor could they sue the State or its officials as officials.”
The state was represented by the Office of Attorney General Chris Carr, including Solicitor General Sarah Warren, newly appointed to the Supreme Court. Carr’s spokeswoman said he had no comment on the decision.
The teachers and administrators were represented by Gilbert Murrah of Bainbridge and Charles Ferenchick of Cairo. They could not be reached immediately.
Nahmias said the case is remanded “with direction to the superior court to dismiss it.”