Withers v. Schroeder

Decision Date10 September 2018
Docket NumberS17G1875
Citation304 Ga. 394,819 S.E.2d 49
Parties WITHERS et al. v. SCHROEDER.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Laura Karen Johnson, Terry Gerard Phillips, Shaheem Malik Williams, Assistant County Attorney, DEKALB COUNTY LAW DEPARTMENT, 1300 Commerce Drive, 5th Floor, Decatur, Georgia 30030, Thomas Monroe Mitchell, Angela C. Couch, CAROTHERS & MITCHELL, LLC, 1809 Buford Highway, Buford, Georgia 30518, for Appellant.

Gerard John Lupa, LUPA LAW, LLC, 1559 Lilburn-Stone Mountain Rd., Stone Mountain, Georgia 30087, Harlan Stuart Miller, III, MILLER LEGAL, P.C., 6868 Leslie Lane, Macon, Georgia 31220, for Appellee.

Dale R. Samuels, THE SAMUELS FIRM, 278 W. Main Street, Buford, Georgia 30518, E. R. Lanier, COUNCIL OF MUNICIPAL COURT JUDGES OF GEORGIA, 267 College Street, Monticello, Georgia 31064-1245, Michael Brian Terry, BONDURANT, MIXSON & ELMORE, LLP, 1201 West Peachtree Street, N.W., Suite 3900, Atlanta, Georgia 30309-3417, David Gregory Hill Brackett, BONDURANT, MIXSON & ELMORE, LLP, 3900 One Atlantic Center, 1201 West Peachtree Street, Atlanta, Georgia 30309-3417, for Amicus Appellant.

BENHAM, Justice.

This appeal concerns the trial court’s disposition of a motion for a judgment on the pleadings in favor of appellants Chief Judge Nelly Withers (Judge Withers) of the former DeKalb County Recorder’s Court and Troy Thompson (Thompson), who was the court administrator of same. Appellee Bobby Schroeder prevailed in his appeal before the Court of Appeals,1 and we granted certiorari to resolve the issue as to whether appellants are immune from suit. Because we conclude appellants are protected from suit by the doctrine of judicial immunity and its derivative quasi-judicial immunity, we reverse the Court of Appeals’ opinion to the extent it allows appellee’s suit to move forward against these two appellants.

1. The underlying allegations are as follows:

According to [appellee]’s complaint, [appellee] received a traffic ticket in DeKalb County in 2013. He alleged that he appeared in recorder’s court and was ordered to pay a fine and that he timely paid the fine, but the staff of the recorder’s court failed to close his case. Moreover, he asserted, the court staff falsely informed the Georgia Department of Driver Services [ (DDS) ] that [appellee] had failed to appear for his hearing, that he had failed to pay his fine, and that his driving privilege should be suspended. See OCGA § 17-6-11 (b) [ (2011).].
In his complaint, [appellee] alleged that on August 9, 2013, an officer with the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office arrested [appellee] for driving on a suspended license and took him into custody. [Appellee] asserted that he spent significant time in custody before bonding out. He alleged that on September 26, 2013, an officer with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office arrested [appellee] for driving on a suspended license and took him into custody. According to [appellee], at the time of his Rockdale County and Newton County arrests, he was on first offender probation; and the Rockdale County and Newton County arrests led to the initiation of probation revocation proceedings for which [appellee] was arrested and jailed from November 12, 2013, until December 10, 2013.
According to [appellee]’s complaint, at some point, the recorder’s court realized that it had provided [DDS] with incorrect information. [Appellee] alleged in the complaint that the court sent a notice of suspension withdrawal to the department. This led to the dismissal of the Rockdale County and Newton County charges and the withdrawal of the probation revocation petition, according to [appellee]. Nonetheless, [appellee] claimed, he lost his job because of these events.
[Appellee] alleged in his complaint that at the relevant time, [Judge] Withers was the chief judge of the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court and ... Thompson was the court administrator. According to [appellee], [appellants] were aware that the recorder’s court was understaffed, dysfunctional, and unable to process its cases, and Judge Withers also knew that the court’s computer systems produced unreliable data because the systems were flawed or because employees routinely entered data incorrectly, and that employees routinely failed to communicate correct information to [DDS].
[Appellee] sent the county ante litem notice of his claims on November 14, 2014. He filed this action for damages alleging that the defendants failed to perform their ministerial duties with due care and that their actions led to [appellee]’s unlawful arrests. In addition to his state law claims, [appellee] asserted claims under 42 USC § 1983 ( § 1983 ), alleging that the county, through Judge Withers, the final policymaker, and Thompson, had violated his constitutional rights by maintaining customs and policies that caused his deprivation of liberty. These customs included chronically understaffing and underfunding the recorder’s court; failing to adequately train employees; failing to implement an audit system that would have caught mistakes; hiring pursuant to a quota system, which increased the rate of errors in the court’s communications with [DDS]; and failing to adequately discipline and terminate employees. And they knew that these customs and practices repeatedly had led to innocent persons being arrested, yet they failed to correct the problems.

Schroeder v. DeKalb County, 341 Ga. App. 748 (1), 802 S.E.2d 277 (2017). Appellants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings (see OCGA § 9-11-12 (c) ) in which they alleged, in pertinent part, that they were immune from suit based on judicial immunity, official immunity, and qualified immunity. The trial court granted appellants’ motion, concluding appellants were immune from suit based on the theories asserted. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the matter back to the trial court, ultimately reasoning for each theory of immunity asserted that it was too early in the litigation to determine whether Judge Withers’s and Thompson’s actions, as alleged by appellee, were administrative or judicial in nature.2 As set forth below, the trial court did not err when it granted the motion for judgment on the pleadings, thereby affording appellants relief from suit.

2. The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the doctrine of judicial immunity which shields judges from being sued and from being held civilly liable for damages based on federal law as a result of carrying out their judicial duties. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219 (III), 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988) (judicial immunity developed in medieval times and continues as a solid doctrine in modern jurisprudence);3 Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (II), 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978) (the United States Supreme Court recognized the doctrine of judicial immunity as early as the late 1800s). See also Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9-10, 112 S.Ct. 286, 116 L.Ed.2d 9 (1991). Likewise, Georgia law has long recognized the doctrine of judicial immunity for state law claims. See Heiskell v. Roberts, 295 Ga. 795 (3), 764 S.E.2d 368 (2014) ("This doctrine of judicial immunity, which the Supreme Court of the United States has said ‘is as old as the law,’ is essential to the impartial administration of justice."). See also Earl v. Mills, 275 Ga. 503 (1), 570 S.E.2d 282 (2002) (citing Peacock v. Nat. Bank &c. of Columbus, 241 Ga. 280 (2), 244 S.E.2d 816 (1978) ; Maddox v. Prescott, 214 Ga. App. 810 (1), 449 S.E.2d 163 (1994)4 ). There are two grounds on which a judge will be denied the absolute protection of judicial immunity: (1) committing an act that is nonjudicial in nature; or (2) acting in the "complete absence of all jurisdiction." Mireles v. Waco, supra, 502 U.S. at 11-12, 112 S.Ct. 286. See also Considine v. Murphy, 297 Ga. 164 (3), fn. 4, 773 S.E.2d 176 (2015) ; Heiskell v. Roberts, supra, 295 Ga. at 801, 764 S.E.2d 368 ; Wilson v. Moore, 275 Ga. App. 493 (1), 621 S.E.2d 507 (2005). A judge is not deprived of judicial immunity simply because she has allegedly acted mistakenly, maliciously or corruptly. See Stump v. Sparkman, supra, 435 U.S. at 356-357, 98 S.Ct. 1099 ; Robinson v. Becker, 265 Ga. App. 692, 694, 595 S.E.2d 319 (2004). In this case, there is no contention that appellants were acting in the absence of all jurisdiction because, at the time, traffic offenses like the one at bar were adjudicated in the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court. Cf. Heiskell v. Roberts, supra, 295 Ga. at 801, 764 S.E.2d 368 (undisputed that Georgia state court judge had subject matter jurisdiction over traffic cases). See also Wilson v. Moore, supra, 275 Ga. App. at 494, 621 S.E.2d 507 (when a judge has subject matter jurisdiction, he is not acting in the absence of all jurisdiction) (citing Dykes v. Hosemann, 776 F.2d 942 (11th Cir. 1985) ).

Thus, the determinative issue in this case is whether the core function complained of—the report to DDS of a traffic case’s disposition—was nonjudicial. "In determining the validity of a party’s claim of judicial immunity, a court looks not to functions actually performed by that party, but to the functions that the law entitles the party to perform." Arthur Andersen & Co. v. Wilson, 256 Ga. 849, 353 S.E.2d 466 (1987). "[T]he relevant inquiry is the ‘nature’ and ‘function’ of the act, not the ‘act itself.’ [Cit.] In other words, we look to the particular act’s relation to a general function normally performed by a judge...." Mireles v. Waco, supra, 502 U.S. at 13, 112 S.Ct. 286. See also Forrester v. White, supra, 484 U.S. at 227, 108 S.Ct. 538 ("[judicial] immunity is justified and defined by the functions it protects and serves, not by the person to whom it attaches") (emphasis in original). Accordingly, in order to determine whether an act is judicial in nature, a reviewing court should consider "(1) whether the act is one normally performed by judges, and (2) whether the complaining party was dealing with the judge in [her] judicial capacity." Stevens v. Osuna, 877 F.3d...

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  • Hise v. Bordeaux
    • United States
    • Georgia Court of Appeals
    • June 7, 2022
    ...a right of action for retrospective monetary damages against a public official in his individual capacity.13 Withers v. Schroeder , 304 Ga. 394, 396 (2), 819 S.E.2d 49 (2018) ; see Forrester v. White , 484 U. S. 219, 225 (III), 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988) (noting that judicial immu......
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    • March 25, 2022
    ...duties. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985); Sibley v. Lando, 437 F.3d 1067, 1070 (11th Cir. 2005); Withers v. Schroeder, 819 S.E.2d 49, 52 (Ga. 2018). The reason for this immunity is easy to understand: “it safeguards the [judicial] process because, without it, losing litigan......
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    • Georgia Supreme Court
    • September 20, 2022
    ...116 L.Ed.2d 9 (1991) ). We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.We also clarify our opinion in Withers v. Schroeder , 304 Ga. 394, 819 S.E.2d 49 (2018). In that case, we held that a court administrator was protected by quasi-judicial immunity when completing a judicial fun......
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