Davis v. Standifer

Decision Date11 October 2005
Docket NumberNo. A05A1292.,A05A1292.
Citation621 S.E.2d 852,275 Ga. App. 769
PartiesDAVIS v. STANDIFER et al.
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals

Steven P. Berne, Atlanta, for Appellant.

Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General, Vincent A. Toreno, Christie, Toreno & Hatcher, L.L.P., Jeffrey W. Stump, Assistant Attorney General, Angela F. Donaldson, Rutherford & Christie LLP, for Appellees.

BERNES, Judge.

Shaquita Davis appeals from the April 2, 2004 order entered by the State Court of Fulton County dismissing her amended complaint pursuant to the Georgia Tort Claims Act, OCGA § 50-21-20 et seq. ("GTCA"). We affirm the trial court's dismissal of Davis' state common law and constitutional claims brought against all appellees, as well as the trial court's dismissal of her federal constitutional claims brought against appellee the Georgia State Patrol ("GSP") and appellee the Georgia Department of Public Safety ("DPS"). However, because of the incomplete state of the existing record, we remand with direction on the issue of whether Davis can proceed with her federal constitutional claims against appellee Ronald A. Standifer, a patrol officer with the GSP.

Davis filed the present action seeking damages from GSP Officer Standifer, GSP, and DPS for the "severe physical, mental, moral, and emotional harm" that she suffered as a result of Standifer's alleged sexual misconduct during a routine traffic stop. In her complaint, Davis alleged that on November 8, 2001, Standifer, while "acting within the scope of his official duties and employment as a state employee of the [GSP], a division of the [DPS]," stopped her vehicle for a traffic violation. She alleged that during the traffic stop, Standifer touched her "on the outside of her pants near her vaginal area," placed his hand underneath her clothing, and "inserted at least one finger in [her] vagina."

Based on these allegations, Davis asserted claims for (1) extreme mental and emotional anguish and harm; (2) sexual assault; (3) sexual battery; (4) assault under color of law of the state of Georgia; (5) false imprisonment; and (6) violation of her state and federal constitutional rights. Davis asserted an additional claim against GSP and DPS for exhibiting deliberate indifference to her rights, privileges, and immunities through inadequate hiring procedures; inadequate instruction, supervision, control, and discipline; and acquiescence in unconstitutional practices. Davis' complaint further specified that she was bringing the action pursuant to the GTCA and 42 USC § 1983.

Standifer filed a motion to dismiss Davis' complaint. Standifer contended that he could not be held individually liable because the alleged conduct occurred within the course and scope of his official duties and employment, entitling him to official immunity under the GTCA. See OCGA § 50-21-25(a). Standifer further argued that Davis' claims for extreme mental and emotional anguish, sexual assault, assault under color of state law, false imprisonment, and violation of her state constitutional rights were foreclosed by her failure to comply with the ante litem notice provision of the GTCA. See OCGA § 50-21-26.

GSP and DPS filed a separate motion to dismiss. GSP and DPS contended that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over them, since the State of Georgia has not waived its sovereign immunity under the GTCA with respect to losses suffered by a plaintiff as a result of an alleged assault, battery, or false imprisonment. See OCGA § 50-21-24(7). GSP and DPS likewise argued that Davis' claims were foreclosed by her noncompliance with the GTCA ante litem notice provision. See OCGA § 50-21-26.

Davis subsequently filed an amendment to her complaint. Among other things, the amendment added a new sentence alleging, "alternatively," that at the time of the incident, "Standifer was not acting within the scope of his official duties and employment as a state employee; rather, he was acting in his individual capacity." The factual description of the time, place, and circumstances of Standifer's alleged misconduct contained in the original complaint, however, remained unchanged.

After hearing oral argument from the parties, the trial court entered an order granting the appellees' respective motions to dismiss pursuant to the GTCA. Davis now appeals from that order, contending that the trial court improperly dismissed her state common law and constitutional claims, as well as her federal constitutional claims.

1. State Law Claims. Davis argues that the trial court erred in dismissing her state law claims pursuant to the GTCA because the allegations of her amended complaint show that Standifer is not entitled to official immunity and that GSP and DPS are not entitled to sovereign immunity. "We review the trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss under the de novo standard of review." BankWest, Inc. v. Oxendine, 266 Ga.App. 771, 776-777(3), 598 S.E.2d 343 (2004). Our review leads us to conclude that the trial court committed no error.

(a) State Law Claims Alleged Against Standifer. The GTCA "exempts state officers and employees from liability for any torts committed while acting within the scope of their official duties or employment." Ridley v. Johns, 274 Ga. 241, 242, 552 S.E.2d 853 (2001). See OCGA § 50-21-25(a).1 The scope of the exemption has been construed broadly: "Where the state employee acts in the prosecution and within the scope of [his official duties], intentional wrongful conduct comes within and remains within the scope of employment." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Feist v. Dirr, 271 Ga.App. 169, 172(1)(b), 609 S.E.2d 111 (2004). See also Ridley, 274 Ga. at 242, 552 S.E.2d 853. Even where the plaintiff alleges a state constitutional violation, if the "underlying conduct complained of is tortious" and occurred within the scope of the state employee's official duties, the employee is protected by official immunity under the GTCA. Premo v. Ga. Ports Auth., 227 Ga.App. 27, 29(4), 488 S.E.2d 106 (1997).2

Guided by these principles, we turn to the allegations in Davis' complaint as amended. Davis' amended complaint alleges that Standifer, a GSP patrol officer, was an employee of the State of Georgia. Furthermore, Davis' complaint, even as amended, explicitly states that the alleged sexual assault occurred during the course of a traffic stop of Davis' vehicle carried out by Standifer. Since the only alleged contact and interaction between Davis and Standifer occurred during the traffic stop, Davis' amended complaint clearly alleges facts showing that the sexual assault "arose from the performance of [Standifer's] official duties as a [patrol] officer." Mattox v. Bailey, 221 Ga.App. 546(1), 472 S.E.2d 130 (1996) (holding that state correctional officer acted within scope of his official duties and thus was entitled to official immunity when officer allegedly beat inmate while escorting inmate across prison grounds). See also Ridley, 274 Ga. at 242, 552 S.E.2d 853 (holding that supervisor who allegedly harassed female employee was entitled to official immunity because the intentional misconduct occurred during the performance of the supervisor's official duties). Standifer, therefore, is cloaked with official immunity from suit.

It is true that Davis' amended complaint added a new alternative allegation stating simply that the misconduct occurred while Standifer was acting in his individual capacity outside the scope of his official duties as a patrol officer. However, "`[m]erely styling a suit against a public officer as one brought against him personally does not deprive him of any immunity to which he might otherwise be entitled for his official acts under the (GTCA)'. (Citations omitted.) Coultas v. Dunbar, 220 Ga.App. 54, 58, 467 S.E.2d 373 (1996)." Hardin v. Phillips, 249 Ga.App. 541, 545(1), 547 S.E.2d 565 (2001). If the underlying factual allegations in Davis' complaint, even as amended, include "the disclosure of some fact which will necessarily defeat the claim[s]," the complaint was properly dismissed. (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Earl v. Mills, 275 Ga. 503, 504(2), 570 S.E.2d 282 (2002).

Davis' amended complaint contains the same factual disclosures as her original complaint, and, as explained above, those facts defeat her state law claims against Standifer by showing that his alleged misconduct occurred within the scope of his official duties. That is, the amendment to Davis' complaint alleged no new or different facts, and it did not alter or delete the factual description of the time, place, and circumstances of the sexual assault disclosed in the original complaint. Rather, Davis did no more than amend her complaint to include an alternative, naked allegation that the same facts disclosed in the original complaint occurred outside the scope of Standifer's official duties as a patrol officer. Thus, the unchanged facts disclosed in the amended complaint clearly demonstrate that Standifer is entitled to official immunity under OCGA § 50-21-25(a).

For these reasons, all of Davis' state law claims brought against Standifer were barred by the GTCA. This includes Davis' state constitutional claims, which arose out of the same allegations of underlying tortious conduct. See Premo, 227 Ga.App. at 29(4), 488 S.E.2d 106. Consequently, the trial court did not err in granting Standifer's motion to dismiss the state common law and constitutional claims alleged against him in Davis' amended complaint.

(b) State Law Claims Alleged Against GSP and DPS. Because the trial court properly held that Standifer was immune from suit, Davis' only potential avenue of recourse under state law was against the state governmental entity that employed Standifer. OCGA § 50-21-25(b).3 Pursuant to the GTCA,

[t]he state waives its sovereign immunity for the torts of state officers and employees while acting within the scope of their official duties or employment and shall be...

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