Augusta Judicial Circuit Office of the Public Defender v. Hodge-Peets

Augusta Judicial Circuit Office of the Public Defender v. Hodge-Peets

GA Supreme Court, 3/5/24

No. A23A1467, 2024 WL 936551

Judge Markle

Topics: Americans With Disabilities Act; Fair Employment Practices Act; Sovereign Immunity, Stare Decisis

Quick Take: In one move, the Georgia Court of Appeals has expressly found that ADA suits are barred under sovereign immunity and, implicitly, that stare decisis is no longer a real doctrine in Georgia because the sole basis for overturning the precedent was that the court disagreed with the reasoning of the prior case. Receding from 22 years of precedent, the Georgia Court of Appeals has overturned Williamson v. Dept. of Human Resources, 258 Ga. App. 113, 116 (572 SE2d 678)(2002), which had held that the State of Georgia had waived its immunity to suit under federal disability discrimination claims by passing the Fair Employment Practices Act. While the majority does not apply the age, reliance, or workability prongs of the test for stare decisis, a concurrence does. It seems to note that all of those prongs weighed in favor of adhering to precedent and that the effects of the court’s decision will be devastating. He urges the General Assembly to consider amending the code to restore what the Court had said it meant for 22 years. The majority (and the concurrence) decided to recede from the prior case, however, based solely on the fact that the current court disagrees with the prior court’s reasoning.

Full Take: Necia Hodge-Peets was employed as an administrative assistant with the Augusta Judicial Circuit Office of the Public Defender (“OPD”) when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After missing work due to her illness, she was twice demoted, received a disciplinary write-up for her absences, and was ultimately terminated for absenteeism. Thereafter, she sued for discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the ADA.

Hodge-Peets sued the OPD[1] for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. OPD moved to dismiss the complaint, contending that the claims were barred by sovereign immunity. Williamson held that Georgia had waived a state actor's sovereign immunity to federal discrimination claims by enacting the Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). The trial court denied the motion, finding that OPD had waived its sovereign immunity by consenting to suit under a state disability discrimination act.

The trial court issued a certificate for immediate review, and the Court of Appeals granted the application. The only issue was whether Williamson, which had stood for over 20 years without being amended by the General Assembly, was wrongly decided. And the court decided it was.

Under the rationale in Williamson, by waiving the State's sovereign immunity to state disability discrimination claims under the FEPA, the General Assembly necessarily waived the State's sovereign immunity to corresponding federal claims. The Williamson Court was guided by the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, but now the court is of the opposite opinion. The court comes to this conclusion by citing a 1999 United States Supreme Court case that is older than Williamson, Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 732 (1999), wherein the court held that the Supremacy Clause does not demand a waiver of immunity. (NOTE: In other words, it’s not possible to state that the Court is receding from its prior decision based on a subsequent interpretation of the Supremacy Clause by the Supreme Court that the original court could not have taken into account.)

Judge Markle writes that the ruling does not offend stare decisis. He recites the factors for overturning a prior decision, which is a balancing test of the (1) age of the precedent, the (2) reliance interests involved, the (3) workability of the prior decision, and most importantly, the (4) soundness of its reasoning. But then the only prong Judge Markle applies is that the court now feels that the reasoning of the case was unsound, so it must be overturned. (NOTE: This, of course, reduces the test to a single prong—whether a new court thinks an older court was wrong—which does, in fact, do away completely with stare decisis. The whole point of stare decisis is to let most decisions stand even if the current court disagrees with them. This was an old decision, the “reliance” factor was not examined, and it was a simple question of statutory interpretation, but the General Assembly had been content to leave the statute unamended for two decades, which seems to imply they were fine with the decision construing their intent).

Judge Markle points out that claimants similarly situated to Hodge-Peets are not without recourse because they can sue under Georgia’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), OCGA § 45-19-20, and the Georgia Equal Employment for Persons with Disabilities Code, OCGA § 34-6A-1.

JUDGE MCFADDEN CONCURRED SPECIALLY, agreeing with the entire opinion, stating that there was no language in FEPA sufficient to constitute a clear and express waiver of sovereign immunity to federal disability claims. He is more squeamish about trampling stare decisis, so he concurred “with trepidation.” He notes that for 22 years, Georgia’s “disability law and the institutions that administer it have developed around the understanding that the Fair Employment Practices Act waives sovereign immunity to federal disability claims. Upsetting all of that will have policy consequences that we are ill equipped to evaluate — and that it is not our role to evaluate. I urge our General Assembly to evaluate them.” (NOTE: In other words, he seems to have weighed the age, reliance and workability prongs of stare decisis and said that they weigh so much in favor of sticking to the precedent that the General Assembly should fix the decision they are now rendering. Why this was not enough to convert this concurrence into a dissent is a mystery. The whole point of the test is that a prior decision that is simply wrong is not enough to get past stare decisis. If just being wrong is enough to recede from a case, there is no such thing as stare decisis

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