Hartley v. Agnes Scott Coll.

Decision Date16 June 2014
Docket NumberNo. S13G1152.,S13G1152.
Citation759 S.E.2d 857,295 Ga. 458
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court


Lloyd Noland Bell, Bell Law Firm, Atlanta, for appellant.

Benjamin David Ladner, Matthew Francis Branch, Brian David Trulock, Bendin Sumrall & Ladner, LLC, Laurie Webb Daniel, Joshua I. Bosin, Holland & Knight LLP, Bert Seth Harp, Jr., General Counsel, Harp & Associates, P.C., Robert Peter Marcovitch, Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial, Lawrence J. LoRusso, James Clayton Strayhorn, II, Lorusso Law Firm, PC, Michael A. Caldwell, Delong, Caldwell, Bridgers & Fitzpatrick, LLC, Atlanta for appellee.

Kirsten Searle Daughdril, Senior Asst. Atty. Gen., Ronald Steve Boyter, Jr., Kathleen M. Pacious, Deputy Atty. Gen., Loretta L. Pinkston, Senior Asst. Atty. Gen., Department of Law, Atlanta, for amicus appellant.

NAHMIAS, Justice.

We granted certiorari to decide whether a campus police officer employed by a private college qualifies as a “state officer or employee” who may assert immunity from tort suits under the Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA), OCGA §§ 50–21–20 to 50–21–37. In Division 1 of Agnes Scott College v. Hartley, 321 Ga.App. 74, 741 S.E.2d 199 (2013), a three-judge plurality of the Court of Appeals, joined in judgment only by another judge, examined the definition of “state officer or employee” in OCGA § 50–21–22(7) and concluded that the defendant Agnes Scott College police officers were entitled to immunity under the GTCA and that appellant Amanda Hartley's tort lawsuit against them should therefore be dismissed. See Hartley, 321 Ga.App. at 74–80, 741 S.E.2d 199. After considering the GTCA as a whole, rather than only its definitions section, we disagree, because it is clear that the Agnes Scott officers were not acting for any state government entity when they committed the alleged torts. We therefore reverse the judgment announced in Division 1 of the Court of Appeals' plurality opinion.

1. (a) This case is here on the denial of a motion to dismiss the complaint, so we will assume that the following factual allegations of the complaint are true. In the spring of 2009, Haley Maxwell was a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.1 On April 28, Maxwell reported to Lieutenants Gaetano Antinozzi and Gregory Scott of the college's Department of Public Safety that she had been beaten and brutally sexually assaulted in her dorm room during the early morning hours of April 13 by a University of Tennessee graduate student named Amanda Hartley. Maxwell also told the officers that on April 27—two weeks after the alleged attack in her dorm room—she went alone to Hartley's apartment in Knoxville, where Hartley beat her again.

A reasonable investigation would have revealed that Maxwell's accusations against Hartley were demonstrably false. For example, the officers would have learned that the sign-in logs at Maxwell's dormitory indicated that Hartley had never been there; not a single person who lived in the dorm could confirm that Hartley had ever been there; a substantial number of independent witnesses could verify that Hartley was actually in Knoxville at the time of the alleged assault in Decatur; and Hartley is a non-violent person who exhibits the utmost respect for the rights and personal safety of others. The officers also would have found evidence disproving Maxwell's claims that Hartley “controlled [her] cell phone account” and “had depleted [her] checking account,” and they would have discovered that the college itself had recently investigated—and found to be false—Maxwell's bizarre claims of mistreatment by personnel at the campus health center.

Instead, on April 30, without investigating the truth or falsity of Maxwell's story, Lieutenant Antinozzi obtained warrants for Hartley's arrest on charges of aggravated sexual battery, battery, and sexual battery. He then contacted the Knoxville Police Department to cause Hartley's arrest and extradition to Georgia. Hartley was arrested and detained in Tennessee on May 6, extradited to Georgia on May 17, and not released on bond until May 28. On December 7, 2009, the district attorney dismissed all charges against Hartley after a reasonable investigation uncovered evidence showing that she was not in Georgia at the time of the alleged assault in Maxwell's dorm room, making it apparent that Maxwell's accusations were wholly fabricated and false.

(b) On April 20, 2011, Hartley filed a tort lawsuit against Agnes Scott College and three of its campus police officers—Lieutenant Antinozzi, Lieutenant Scott, and Harry Hope, the director of the college's Department of Public Safety—alleging that the three officers were acting within the scope of their employment by the college at the relevant times. The complaint sought compensatory and punitive damages based on claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The officer defendants answered and filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that they were entitled to immunity under the GTCA. On March 20, 2011, the trial court denied the motion to dismiss.

The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in a divided whole-court decision. The disagreement between the three judges who joined the plurality opinion and the three judges in dissent focused on whether a private campus police officer exercising law enforcement powers qualifies as a “state officer or employee” within the meaning of OCGA § 50–21–22(7), entitling the officer to assert immunity under the GTCA. The seventh judge concurred in the plurality's judgment only. We granted certiorari.2

2. (a) Like the competing opinions in the Court of Appeals, the parties focus their arguments here primarily on whether the Agnes Scott police officer defendants were entitled to seek immunity under the GTCA. Hartley contends that they could not be immune because they do not qualify as state officers or employees as defined in OCGA § 50–21–22(7), which says in full:

“State officer or employee” means an officer or employee of the state, elected or appointed officials, law enforcement officers, and persons acting on behalf or in service of the state in any official capacity, whether with or without compensation, but the term does not include an independent contractor doing business with the state. The term state officer or employee also includes any natural person who is a member of a board, commission, committee, task force, or similar body established to perform specific tasks or advisory functions, with or without compensation, for the state or a state government entity, and any natural person who is a volunteer participating as a volunteer, with or without compensation, in a structured volunteer program organized, controlled, and directed by a state government entity for the purposes of carrying out the functions of the state entity. This shall include any health care provider and any volunteer when providing services pursuant to Article 8 of Chapter 8 of Title 31. An employee shall also include foster parents and foster children. Except as otherwise provided for in this paragraph, the term shall not include a corporation whether for profit or not for profit, or any private firm, business proprietorship, company, trust, partnership, association, or other such private entity.

As the Court of Appeals plurality opinion emphasized, this definition of a “state officer or employee” expressly includes both “law enforcement officers” and “persons acting on behalf or in the service of the state in any official capacity.” To determine if private campus police officers come within those phrases, the plurality looked to the Campus Policemen Act originally enacted in 1977. See OCGA §§ 20–8–1 to 20–8–7. That law defines a “campus policeman” as “an employee of an educational facility whose duties include the enforcement of the laws of this state; the preservation of public order; the protection of life and property; the prevention, detection, or investigation of crime; or any combination thereof.” OCGA § 20–8–1(2). The statute gives these officers, when they are on or near campus, “the same law enforcement powers ... as a law enforcement officer of the local government with police jurisdiction over such campus,” so long as the officers are properly certified pursuant to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Act (POST Act), OCGA § 35–8–1 et seq., and “the governing body or authority of such educational facility” has authorized them to exercise law enforcement powers as part of their jobs, OCGA § 20–8–2. See Hartley, 321 Ga.App. at 76–78, 741 S.E.2d 199 (plurality opinion).

In response, the dissent highlighted the last sentence of OCGA § 50–21–22(7), which expressly excludes corporations and other private entities, like Agnes Scott College, from the definition of “state officer or employee,” contending that employees of such private entities are also excluded. See Hartley, 321 Ga.App. at 82, 741 S.E.2d 199 (Miller, P.J., dissenting). The plurality replied by noting that the sentence on which the dissent relied begins, [e]xcept as otherwise provided for in this paragraph”; thus, if a campus police officer qualifies as a state officer or employee under the first sentence of the definitional paragraph, the fact that the officer is employed by a corporation or a private entity is irrelevant.

If OCGA § 50–21–22(7) were all we had to go on, we would tend to agree with the plurality. But when read in the context of the statute of which that definitional provision is a part, it becomes clear that the Agnes Scott College police officers at issue are not state officers or employees protected by the GTCA.

(b) OCGA § 50–21–22(7) does not stand alone. Rather, it is part of the Georgia Tort Claims Act—an integrated statutory tort claims scheme whose key components were enacted contemporaneously. See Ga. L.1992, p. 1883.

When we consider the meaning of a statutory provision, we do not read it in...

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