Bd. of Commissioners of Lowndes Cty. v. Mayor & Council of City of Valdosta

Court: Georgia Supreme Court
Case Number: S20G0472
Decision Date: September 28, 2020
Case Type: Intergovernmental Relations

This case involved the Georgia Service Delivery Strategy Act (Georgia Code § 36-70-1) and a dispute between the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners and the cities within Lowndes County, including the city of Valdosta.

The county and the cities operated under a service delivery strategy agreement signed in 2008. In June 2016, the chairman of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners circulated a new draft Strategy Agreement to the mayors of the cities of Valdosta, Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park and Remerton. On Nov. 1, 2016, when the Department of Community Affairs ("DCA")  had not received communication from the county and cities that they had agreed either to revise their agreement or extend the existing one, it notified the county and cities that they would be ineligible for state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans, or permits until the department could verify that Lowndes County and the cities had done so.

In January 2017, Lowndes County sued the DCA, its commissioner, Camila Knowles, and the mayors and councils of the cities. The petition argued that the 2008 Strategy Agreement remained in effect, and that the county and cities remained eligible for state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans and permits. After the department and Knowles filed a motion to dismiss the case, the county amended its petition, adding members of the board of the DCA as defendants. The amended complaint sought “declaratory” relief against the state defendants in their individual capacities and/or official capacities. 

Knowles and the DCA board members filed a motion to dismiss the amended petition on the basis that sovereign immunity barred the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief. They argued that those claims actually sought to order Knowles and the DCA board members to take action in their official capacities, rather than in their individual capacities. The trial court dismissed the claims, concluding they were really claims against the state.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s judgment, writing that it was clear that the department, not Knowles and the department’s board members, “is the real party in interest,” and that the relief sought would “control the actions of the state” and could “only be granted by the state,” whereas Knowles and the board members have no authority in their individual capacities under the Service Delivery Strategy Act to direct the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to do anything. The Lowndes County Board of Commissioners then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that while sovereign immunity “bars claims against the state, its departments and agencies, and its officers and employees when sued in their official capacities,” sovereign immunity generally “does not apply to individual-capacity claims for prospective declaratory and injunctive relief against state officers and employees alleged to be acting without legal authority.”

The Court continued to find that “[t]he Georgia Constitution allows only the General Assembly to waive the state’s sovereign immunity”. The opinion says “[w]e have repeatedly refused invitations to invent exceptions to that rule. But that rule requires waiver only for claims that sovereign immunity actually bars. And, as we have repeatedly explained, sovereign immunity has never barred most individual-capacity claims against state employees and officials for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief based on allegations that those defendants are acting beyond their legal authority. At least some of the claims in this case are precisely those kinds of claims.”

The Court of Appeals had concluded that the state was actually the real party in interest because a county was seeking relief against state officials that would control the actions of the state and potentially affect state expenditures. The Supreme Court found that “the real-party-in-interest limitation is not so broad; our case law has applied it primarily when the claimed relief would control or take the state’s real property or interfere with contracts to which the state is a party”. “No such relief is sought here, and applying the limitation as broadly as the state seeks would eviscerate Georgians’ well-established rights to seek redress against their government. We therefore reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that sovereign immunity does not bar the claims at issue in this case.”