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Georgia Courts Clarify Official Immunity for Public School Officials

In an action brought by school principal, Laverne Halliburton, claiming racial discrimination against her former school district and district officials, the Court held that the defendants were entitled to sovereign and qualified immunity in their official capacities but that immunity was precluded in their individual capacities. Liberty County School Dist. V. Halliburton, 762 S.E.2d 138 (Ga. App. 2014). In 2011, the Liberty County School Board voted 4-3 to “non-renew” Halliburton’s contract as principal for the following school year. Halliburton claims that this vote was along racial lines and in retaliation for the comments that she made about the performance of a white assistant principal to the school superintendent. Further, she claims that she was continually treated differently from similarly situated white employees and that the superintendent illegally and unilaterally refused to renew her contract. As a result of these “oppressive and malicious” actions, Halliburton alleges that she suffered damages including lost and future wages, emotional distress, and overall discomfort. She also sought a writ of mandamus and other injunctive relief.

The defendants argue that the school district, and the individual defendants in their official capacities, are entitled to sovereign immunity as to Halliburton's claims. The Court held that because the school district is a political subdivision of the state, the District is vested with sovereign immunity unless specifically waived. The Georgia Constitution waives sovereign immunity in “any action ex contractu for the breach of any written contract.” Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Para. IX (c). However, according to Halliburton herself, her complaint is a request for reinstatement, back pay, and attorney fees. Accordingly, the constitutional waiver cannot apply when the issue is over a new contract that the District refused to issue and sovereign immunity shall apply to the District and its members in their official capacity.

An action against a school officer, acting in his official capacity, will be barred by official immunity unless it falls under two exceptions. First, the officer negligently performed a ministerial duty or the officer acted with actual malice or intent to cause injury while performing a discretionary duty. The Court found that since no discovery had been completed, it cannot be said that Halliburton would not be entitled to relief under one of these exceptions. As a result, these evidentiary questions must preclude dismissal of the complaint against the officials in their individual capacity. Further, the Court held that the act of refusing to renew Halliburton’s contract is a discretionary action by the Board and that mandamus relief can only be applied to ministerial acts. Accordingly, with the caveat that no mandamus relief is available, the complaint against the school board members in their individual capacity, was remanded for further proceedings and all other complaints were dismissed due to the doctrine of immunity.

To read more, please click the following link to the court opinion: Court Opinion

The attorneys at Buckley Christopher & Haff are available to assist you and your company in ensuring that your employment practices are within the bounds of the law and to represent you if litigation arises. Please contact one of our attorneys for more information.

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