Sawyer v. Coleman, A00A0002.

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
Citation537 S.E.2d 193,245 Ga. App. 37
Docket NumberNo. A00A0002.,A00A0002.
PartiesSAWYER v. COLEMAN et al.
Decision Date12 July 2000

537 S.E.2d 193
245 Ga.
App. 37


No. A00A0002.

Court of Appeals of Georgia.

July 12, 2000.

Certiorari Denied November 13, 2000.

537 S.E.2d 195
Brenda H. Trammell, Madison, J.M. Raffauf, Decatur, for appellant

Thurbert E. Baker, Atty. Gen., Harman, Owen, Saunders & Sweeney, David C. Will, Atlanta, for appellees.

537 S.E.2d 194
POPE, Presiding Judge

This case arises out of the tragic circumstances surrounding a 14-year-old boy's suicide by jumping from a two-story fire escape. At the time of his death, the boy was in the custody of the Department of Children & Youth Services (DCYS) in Walton County. Janice Sawyer, the boy's mother, brought suit against Leslie Coleman, her son's probation officer, and Margaret Laskey, Coleman's supervisor, asserting numerous federal and state claims.1 The trial court granted Coleman and Laskey summary judgment on all claims, but Sawyer's appeal challenges only the grant of summary judgment on her federal constitutional claims.

In October 1993, Sawyer's son, Michael Grubbs, was found delinquent and committed to the DCYS on charges of abusive and obscene language, truancy, violation of probation, runaway and unruly. Michael's case was assigned to Coleman. At the time, she was employed as a juvenile probation officer and court service worker by the DCYS, working out of the juvenile probation office in Walton County. Her duties included supervising juveniles such as Michael, who resided in Walton County and were placed in DCYS custody. Laskey was the unit director

537 S.E.2d 196
and supervisor of the DCYS offices in Walton County and Newton County.

After a brief detention in a Regional Youth Development Center (RYDC), Michael completed a Wilderness School program. He then spent a short, unsuccessful stay at home before being assigned to a group home in Augusta. On February 17, 1994, after staying in the group home for one day, Michael ran away and returned to his mother's house. Coleman allowed Michael to stay overnight with his [245 Ga. App. 38] mother and to report to her office the following morning.

Michael's grandmother brought him to Coleman's office the next morning. Coleman told Michael at that point that he would have to go back to the RYDC temporarily until another group home could be found. Michael was extremely reluctant to go back to the RYDC, so he and Coleman discussed the situation. At one point, Michael remarked to Coleman that he had thought about suicide but stated that he did not really want to die. He told Coleman he had tried swallowing aspirin a month or two earlier, but he had not really wanted to kill himself. Eventually, however, he agreed to let Coleman drive him to the RYDC.

After they got in Coleman's truck, Michael said he could not go back to detention. He then got out of the truck and started to walk away. Coleman talked to Michael for a minute before he took off running. Coleman pursued him. At one point, she "tackled" him, but he pushed away from her and kept running. Coleman caught up with Michael again and tried to talk to him. But as she approached, Michael scaled a barbed-wire-topped chain link fence at the mill where his mother worked. Coleman followed Michael over the fence and into the mill where she caught up with him on a fire escape. Michael asked one of the mill employees to get his mother, but Coleman directed the man not to because she was concerned that another interruption could adversely affect the mother's job. While Coleman was talking to Michael, the boy climbed over the railing and jumped to his death. Coleman testified that, even after their conversation that morning, she did not believe the boy was suicidal until she saw his demeanor change minutes before he jumped.

Sawyer's complaint alleges Coleman and Laskey violated Michael's constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments and she has asserted claims pursuant to 42 USC § 1983. In response, Coleman and Laskey raised the defense of qualified immunity.

Government officials are protected by the defense of qualified immunity for their discretionary actions in all but exceptional cases:

Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions from civil trials (and the other burdens of litigation, including discovery) and from liability if their conduct violates no "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 [, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 ] (1982).

Lassiter v. Alabama A & M Univ. &c., 28 F.3d 1146, 1149 (11th Cir.1994). The burden is on the government official to demonstrate that [245 Ga. App. 39] the alleged constitutional violations occurred while she was acting in the scope of her discretionary authority. Once that is established, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to establish that the defendant violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. Harbert Intl. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1281 (11th Cir.1998). This requirement that plaintiff show a clearly established right is a strenuous one:

For the law to be clearly established to the point that qualified immunity does not apply, the law must have earlier been developed in such a concrete and factually defined context to make it obvious to all reasonable government actors, in the defendant's place, that what he is doing violates federal law.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Jenkins v. Talladega City Bd. of Ed., 115 F.3d 821, 823 (11th Cir.1997). As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, the shield of qualified immunity extends to all government actors but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Malley v. Briggs,

537 S.E.2d 197
475 U.S. 335, 341-43, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986).

Here, the allegations center around Coleman's actions in supervising Michael. Sawyer has not alleged that Laskey had any direct involvement in the events at issue. We have previously held that a probation officer is exercising discretionary authority in supervising or monitoring probationers in his charge. Dept. of Corrections v. Lamaine, 233 Ga.App. 271, 273, 502 S.E.2d 766 (1998) (probation officer's supervision of convicted criminal). Therefore, Coleman and Laskey are entitled to qualified immunity unless Sawyer can demonstrate that their conduct violated "a clear, factually-defined, well-recognized right of which a reasonable [juvenile probation officer] should have known." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Thomas v. Holt, 221 Ga.App. 345, 348(1), 471 S.E.2d 300 (1996).

1. Sawyer argues Michael's constitutional rights were violated when Coleman made the decision to transport him to the RYDC without a hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that no liberty interest protected by the due process clause is affected when a convicted adult prisoner is transferred from one prison facility to another. Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 224, 96 S.Ct. 2532, 49 L.Ed.2d 451 (1976). And "[t]his general legal principle appears equally applicable to duly adjudicated juvenile delinquents in the custodial care of [the Department of Children & Youth Services in Georgia]." People v. Bertholf, 99 Misc.2d 321, 323, 416 N.Y.S.2d 173 (1979) (holding no constitutional violation in transferring juvenile to more secure facility, but finding transfer violated state statute that required a hearing). See also Cruz v. Collazo, 450 F.Supp. 235, 239 (D.P.R.1978).

[245 Ga. App. 40] Here, Sawyer does not contest that in October 1993 a juvenile...

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    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
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    ...v. Ingles Markets, 241 Ga.App. 302, 304(2), 524 S.E.2d 766 (1999); Tanner v. Larango, 232 Ga.App. 599, 600(2), 502 S.E.2d 516 (1998);14 537 S.E.2d 193 Denham v. Young Men's Christian Assn. &c., 231 Ga.App. 197, 499 S.E.2d 94 (1998). Consequently, I would affirm the trial court's order grant......
  • Howell v. Willis
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • June 29, 2012
    ...See Ga. Dept. of Corrections v. Lamaine, 233 Ga.App. 271, 275(1), 502 S.E.2d 766 (1998) (Beasley, J., dissenting). Cf. Sawyer v. Coleman, 245 Ga.App. 37, 38–39, 537 S.E.2d 193 (2000) (in actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, government official has burden of demonstrating that alleged violation o......
  • Kraft v. Adams, A00A1950.
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • January 23, 2001
    ...25, 112 S.Ct. 358, 116 L.Ed.2d 301 (1991). 3. Bell v. City of Albany, 210 Ga.App. 371, 374, 436 S.E.2d 87 (1993). 4. Sawyer v. Coleman 245 Ga.App. 37, 38-39, 537 S.E.2d 193 5. Perry Ed. Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn., 460 U.S. 37, 45, 103 S.Ct. 948, 74 L.Ed.2d 794 (1983). 6. Isaac v.......
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • July 12, 2000
    ...Court only as to Division 1. Judgment affirmed. JOHNSON, C.J., POPE, P.J., ANDREWS, P.J., SMITH, P.J., ELDRIDGE, and MIKELL, JJ. concur. [245 Ga. App. 37]-------- Notes: 1. 272 Ga. 404, 528 S.E.2d 785 2. 239 Ga.App. 350(1), 520 S.E.2d 767 (1999). --------...

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