The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously dismissed the city’s appeal of lower court rulings in lawsuits filed against the city and its top leadership by Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce.
It has yet to rule on an appeal concerning a similar lawsuit filed by Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop. The four elected officials filed suit last year against the city, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, members of Columbus Council and some of the city’s top executive leaders. Their suits contend that the defendants overstepped their authority in the annual budget process and in doing so failed to give the officials sufficient funds to carry out the duties of their offices.
The suits — Darr’s and Pierce’s are separate while Countryman’s and Bishop filed one suit together — had hearings in Superior Court late last year and earlier this year, where some aspects of the suits were dismissed, but some carried forward. Stone Mountain Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, who was appointed to handle the cases because local judges recused themselves, denied the city’s motion to dismiss the suits altogether. The city appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which was the motion the court denied this week.
William Stone, who represents Pierce, said the ruling came as no surprise to him and he expects the high court to rule similarly in the nearly identical lawsuit filed by Countryman and Bishop.“It’s just sad to me that this thing is going in the direction that it’s going, and so much money is being wasted,” Stone said. “That money could be easily used to solve the problems that the budget issues caused, rather than on lawyers. It’s getting nobody anywhere, spending the money on lawyers. And, frankly, it belies the city’s position that they don’t have any money, because they sure are spending a lot of money they don’t have on lawyers.”
Tomlinson said the city would not be paying any money to any lawyers had the elected officials not decided to sue the city and its top leadership.“Undeniably, the institution of this litigation was by the plaintiffs. That’s why they’re called plaintiffs,” Tomlinson said. “They instituted this litigation, so all the costs of that have transpired rest squarely and solely at their feet.”
Kerry Howell, attorney for Darr, sent out a release saying that the sheriff is pleased with the ruling and accused Tomlinson of delaying the proceedings and “manipulation.”“Now that the courts have ruled in favor of the sheriff again, perhaps the city will accept the sheriff’s offer to meet and resolve this dispute in good faith,” Howell said in the release. “The mayor’s tactic of delay and manipulation has failed. There are two options now — proceed to trial or recognize the merit of the sheriff’s positions and sit down and work this matter out once and for all.”Tomlinson said because the issues in dispute in the lawsuits are legal in nature, they can’t be decided in mediation.
“How do we mediate the constitutionality of an ordinance?” Tomlinson said. “They have contested how we do business pursuant to Georgia law and our ordinances, and only a court can ajudicate that.”Tomlinson said, while she is disappointed that the Supreme Court denied the city’s appeal, she remains confident that the city will prevail in Superior Court.“While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court will not hear the significant legal issues presented by these matters at the outset, we look forward to exposing the weakness of these claims in the trial court and prevailing there,” Tomlinson said.
“We had hoped the Supreme Court would resolve these faulty pleading matters early, thereby limiting further taxpayer expense.”With the Supreme Court ruling out of the way, at least in the Darr and Pierce cases, the cases will return to Superior Court to be tried. No dates have been set for hearings.“We’ll have a status conference and the judge will tell us how he wants to proceed and set a schedule for us to start conducting discovery and figure all this out,” Stone said.