Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta, home to the Atlanta Falcons. Photo by John Disney/ALM. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The Georgia Court of Appeals partly revived a challenge to the deal allowing the Atlanta Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium to avoid paying Fulton County any ad valorem taxes on the facility.

A group of taxpayers sued the county Board of Tax Assessors and chief appraiser in 2017 claiming among other things that the agreement improperly declared the stadium property nontaxable and that the law under which the deal was reached is unconstitutional.

A Fulton County judge dismissed the case earlier this year, ruling the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under which relief could be granted and that the constitutional claims were therefore moot.

But the appellate panel wrote in a Dec. 3 opinion that, while the claims against the county officials in their official capacities were barred by sovereign immunity, they could be sued on their individual capacities for declaratory and injunctive relief.

Because the trial court improperly dismissed those claims, it also erred in declaring moot the constitutional challenge to the underlying statute, which grants tax-exempt status to property owned by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, the opinion said.

As detailed in the opinion and other filings, the dispute centers on 2013 agreements between the Falcons, the World Congress Center, the company to established operate the stadium, and the Atlanta Development Authority to raze the old Georgia Dome and replace it with the new stadium.

Among the provisions of the deal was a requirement that neither the World Congress Center nor the stadium would pay ad valorem taxes, subject to approval by the county tax board.

The board met later that year and approved a measure exempting the stadium and property from taxation.

A half-dozen Fulton property owners filed suit in October 2017, arguing the board failed to ascertain whether the property was properly tax-exempt under the law, and asked that the court declare it was a taxable.

The plaintiffs also argued the World Congress Center Authority statute is unconstitutional because the law was never approved by a statewide referendum.

The county filed a motion to dismiss, which Judge Craig Schwall granted in March. He ruled the plaintiffs’ request for mandamus relief against the tax board failed because the panel had exercised its public duty to “investigate and identify” taxable property before declaring the stadium exempt.

Schwall also said the claims against the county officials in their official capacities were barred by sovereign immunity and that those against them in their individual capacities were barred by official immunity.

The Dec. 3 appellate opinion, written by Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes with the concurrence of Judges Carla McMillian and Clyde Reese, said Schwall was correct in dismissing the mandamus claims.

But Schwall “erred in dismissing their claims for declaratory and injunctive relief against the tax board members and chief appraiser in their individual capacities based on the doctrine of official immunity,” Barnes wrote.

The Georgia Supreme Court has held that, while the state Constitution protects public officials from suits seeking “monetary and other retrospective relief,” it “does not limit the availability of prospective relief,” wrote Barnes, citing the high court’s 2017 ruling in Lathrop v. Deal (301 Ga. 408).    

“Hence, the doctrine of official immunity does not bar suits for injunctive relief brought against county officers in their individual capacities, and the trial court erred in concluding otherwise,” the opinion said.

Because of that ruling, the motion to declare the World Congress Center statute unconstitutional “is no longer moot,” wrote Barnes.

The plaintiffs are represented by Fayetteville solo Wayne Kendall, who said he was “considering all of our options” regarding the ruling.

Fulton County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker, whose office is defending the case, did not reply to request for comment Wednesday.