Judge Nelly Withers, DeKalb County Recorders Court (Photo: Johnny Crawford/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Like hundreds of other people ticketed for traffic infractions in DeKalb County, Bobby Schroeder showed up at court and paid his fine.
But personnel with DeKalb County Recorders Court told the state Department of Driver Services that Schroeder failed to appear, never paid up and his driver’s license should be suspended.
That suspension led to two more traffic stops, revocation proceedings of his probation as a first offender, a monthlong sojourn in jail, the loss of his job and the repossession of his car before court personnel belatedly corrected the error, according to Schroeder’s attorney.
But Schroeder’s subsequent damages claim against the county, former DeKalb Recorders Court Chief Judge Nelly Withers, and Troy Thompson, Withers’ court administrator, for his illegal arrest and the consequences that ensued failed to persuade a DeKalb County judge, who dismissed the case.
In an opinion handed down June 14, the Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed, reversing DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Mark Anthony Scott’s dismissal and directing the judge to reinstate a number of Schroeder’s claims.
Judge Christopher McFadden, writing for a panel that included Judges Lisa Branch and Charles Bethel, rejected Scott’s ruling that Withers and her court administrator enjoyed judicial and official immunity. Schroeder’s counsel, Atlanta attorney David Ates, had contended that, because Withers and Thompson were negligent in executing specific administrative duties, they were not immune from liability. The appellate panel agreed.
McFadden’s opinion also held that, while judicial immunity may shield judges from suits stemming from actions they perform in their judicial capacity, it does not extend to administrative actions such as supervising court employees and overseeing the efficient operation of a court.
“This complaint alleges that the judge and staff of the Recorder’s Court failed in their respective duties when they set court policy and maintained court customs that they knew to result in the systematic arrest of innocent persons and that actually resulted in the improper processing of Schroeder’s original traffic citation and his later arrest for driving with a suspended license,” McFadden wrote. “But even if these administrative actions are functions normally performed by a judge, neither Judge Withers nor her administrators can claim absolute judicial immunity as to them.”
The appellate panel also reinstated Schroeder’s civil rights claims that he had been illegally jailed because Withers and Thompson oversaw a dysfunctional court operation that they knew was understaffed, underfunded and routinely transmitted inaccurate information about court appearances and fines to the state—practices that Schroeder said had resulted in the arrest of innocent people like him.
DeKalb Recorders Court was abolished by the General Assembly in 2015 and replaced with a traffic court division in the county’s state court after a spate of lawsuits raised questions about court operations and whether it had the legal jurisdiction to legally handle many of misdemeanors, including traffic violations it was adjudicating.
“At this early stage,” McFadden wrote, “it cannot be said that Schroeder will not be able to introduce evidence of the repeated incidents that he alleged.”
After reading the opinion, Ates said, “Believe me, I’m not one to try to go out and pick a fight with judges.” But, he added, “You don’t throw people in jail for nothing that they did wrong.”
The Daily Report has contacted Malik Williams, an attorney with DeKalb County’s Law Department, and a county spokeswoman and is awaiting their responses.
Schroeder’s suit is not the only one over the operation of DeKalb Recorder’s Court. A federal case on behalf of 17 former Recorders Court defendants who allege that their traffic cases were mishandled, resulting in their wrongful arrests for driving with suspended licenses that should not have been suspended. The suit, which is seeking certification as a class action, describes “a long-standing, systemic dysfunction” of the court’s operations. It also names Withers and Thompson as defendants.
Questions as to whether Withers, Thompson and the county are shielded from liability by judicial and other forms of immunity are under consideration by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, said Gerry Weber, a civil rights lawyer representing potential class members. The issues considered by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Schroeder’s case, Weber explained, are based on facts nearly identical to those in the federal suit. The state appellate ruling “is very important,” said Weber, who filed it to supplement the record in the Eleventh Circuit on Wednesday, giving the federal appellate court, he added, “all the more reason to reject [the federal] appeal.”