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O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 (c)- Substantial compliance doctrine often saves Georgia local governments from themselves

By William J. Linkous

Cities, counties, and school systems constantly face administrative requirements and timelines found in the Georgia Code, as well as (in the case of cities and counties) their own ordinances. Local government legal practitioners are well aware that local governments sometimes fall short in abiding by these administrative requirements. Often, a failure to meet a deadline or other similar statutory requirement results in a lawsuit challenging the action of the local government entity or makes worse an existing lawsuit or claim.

             O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 (c) and the case law interpreting it provides local governments with some refuge when they mis-step administratively. The subsection provides:

 A substantial compliance with any statutory requirement, especially on the part of public officers, shall be deemed and held sufficient, and no proceeding shall be declared void for want of such compliance, unless expressly so provided by law.

 At first blush, this subsection of the Code gives special leeway to public officers in their duties, provided they “substantially comply” with the requirements of the Code, and provided that the law does not list a penalty for non-compliance. But the case law interpreting O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 (c) expands on this concept and explains it in a way that can be very helpful to local government lawyers facing litigation over minor administrative mis-steps by their clients.

             For instance, in Collins v. Nix, 125 Ga. App. 520, 188 S.E.2d 235, 237 (1972) the Court quoted subsection (c) of O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1, and then went on to quote the following two additional helpful passages from other case law:

 “Where a statute directs the doing of a thing in a certain time, without any negative words restraining the doing of it afterwards, generally the provision as to time is directory, and not a limitation of authority; and in such case, where no injury appears to have resulted, the fact that the act was performed after the time limited will not render it invalid.” (Citations omitted). “Generally, statutes directing the mode of proceeding by public officers, designated to promote method, system uniformity, and dispatch in such proceeding, will be regarded as directory if a disregard thereof will not injure the rights of parties, and the statute does not declare what result shall follow non-compliance therewith, nor contain negative words importing a prohibition of any other mode of proceeding than that prescribed.”  (Citation omitted).

 Armed with these quotations, a local government lawyer can avoid the “gotcha” arguments made by plaintiffs when a local government administrator fails to meet a statutory timeline. Moreover, “[t]his provision of statutory construction (found in O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 (c)) has been applied in many cases to statutes which provide that certain acts must be performed by public officials within specified periods of time.” Charles H. Wesley Educ. Found, Inc. v. State Election Bd., 282 Ga. 707, 654 S.E.2d 127, 129 (2007) (citing Clayton County v. Evans, 258 Ga. 146, 147, 366 S.E.2d 282 (1988)). Excellent examples of the use of this doctrine can be found in the above-cited cases, as well as in many other Georgia appellate decisions, including the following: Barton v. Atkinson, 228 Ga. 733, 187 S.E.2d 835, 841 (1972) (containing an excellent historical discussion of the principle involved) and Buckler v. DeKalb County Bd. Of Comm’rs, 299 Ga. App. 465, 683 S.E.2d 22, 25 (2009).

             The general principles which warrant the application of the “substantial compliance” doctrine include: (1) a statute providing for administrative procedures; (2) no penalty in the statute for non-compliance; (3) no harm to any parties resulting from the non-compliance; and (4) compliance with the overall objective of the statutory provisions. Obviously, this line of cases should be used only in appropriate circumstances and is not a license for local governments to disregard statutory directives. Moreover, it is an open question as to whether a local government can cite “substantial compliance” when it violates its own ordinances. By its express terms, O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 applies to the interpretation of the Georgia Code. However, the principles could logically fit violations of ordinance provisions. Although a different subsection of O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 has been held to apply to municipal ordinances in Risser v. Thomasville, 248 Ga. 866, 286 S.E.2d 727, 728 (1982) (citing Snow v. Johnston, 197 Ga. 146, 155, 28 S.E.2d 270 (1943)), it will be left for the courts to decide whether to apply subsection (c) of O.C.G.A. Section 1-3-1 to local governments that fail to comply with their own municipal and county ordinances.