Georgia Court of Appeals Reminds Local Governments that Official Immunity Can Be Fact Dependent


By: Bill Linkous

On March 26, 2014 the Georgia Court of Appeals issued a decision in Jackson v. Payne, Appeal No. A13A1921 (2014), which serves as a sharp reminder to local governments that they will not be automatically entitled to official immunity for individual capacity claims against their employees due to the employees’ discretionary actions if the facts are sufficiently disputed.  As a result, local governments and their employees should review their policies and procedures to make sure that they are protected from factual disputes that might defeat summary judgment and lead to liability.
In Jackson, the Court was faced with tort claims against deputies who, under the facts alleged by plaintiff Payne, acted improperly during the course of an execution on a fi fa against him (a fi fa is a document showing indebtedness and is not normally grounds for arrest or detention).  Although both sides apparently agreed that the execution of the fi fa was discretionary for official immunity purposes, the factual dispute was stark as to what actually happened at the scene.  Payne alleged that the deputies approached him in a public place for the purpose of executing the fi fa.  According to Payne, after seizing all of the personal property that he had on his person, the deputies forced Payne to get into their sheriff’s car and transported him against his will to his hotel room several miles away.  There, they compelled Payne to give them access to the hotel room, and seized all of Payne’s possessions in the hotel room, including his clothing other than his underwear.  Payne also alleged that the deputies held him against his will in the hotel room for over an hour.  The deputies, on the other hand, contended that Payne went with them voluntarily, that he was never under arrest, and that he never asked to leave the hotel room.  The Court noted that the deputies’ account was belied by the incident report, which indicated that Payne had been arrested at some point during the execution of the fi fa.
The trial court denied the deputies summary judgment on the grounds of official immunity, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  The appellate court held that under Payne’s version of the facts, a jury could make a “reasonable inference” that the deputies arrested Payne during the execution of the fi fa, and detained him without authority, thereby deliberately intending to do a wrongful act.  The appellate court held that whether the deputies acted with actual malice or outside the scope of their authority was thus a question of fact for the jury.
Although whether a governmental employee is entitled to official immunity is a generally question of law that must ultimately be decided by a trial court, when the relevant facts concerning the employee’s behavior at the time of the alleged tort are in dispute, a court cannot resolve the official immunity issue on summary judgment.  Nichols v. Prather, 286 Ga.App. 889, 896, 650 S.E.2d 380 (2007).  In the Jackson case, the deputies would have had a much better chance of obtaining summary judgment if they had made a tape recording of the event, or obtained written consent from Payne for the trip to his hotel room.  Local governments should draft policies and procedures that are designed to promote the doctrines of official and qualified immunity, and thus avoid the possibility of factual disputes that could defeat summary judgment in individual capacity claims.