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High court rules against ex-deputies

POSTED: June 16, 2014 10:31 a.m.
 

ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against 11 former Forsyth County Sheriff’s deputies who were fired last year, though both sides in the legal fight acknowledged it might not be over.

In a unanimous decision announced Monday morning, the court dismissed the officers’ appeal because they failed to follow the correct procedure in filing it.

“We can file a motion for reconsideration with the court and we’re also looking at other options,” said Lance LoRusso, attorney for the plaintiffs. “They can always file a federal lawsuit ... they’re considering it now.”

Attorney Ken Jarrard, who represented the county, its civil service board and personnel services director Patricia Carson, said they would “monitor the situation to see what happens next.”

“The county is pleased with the result and what it says about Ms. Carson’s actions,” Jarrard said. “I am pleased on behalf of Ms. Carson. It’s the correct result.”

The former officers, who LoRusso described as “disappointed” with the ruling, had appealed to the high court after a Superior Court denied their petition to force a hearing of their case by the Forsyth County Civil Service Board.

In February 2013, Sheriff’s Lt. Lisa Frady Selke, four captains, four other lieutenants and two sergeants employed by the agency were terminated as part of a “reduction in force,” according to the sheriff’s office.

According to court documents, they claimed their termination was age discrimination and a subterfuge for political retaliation by Sheriff Duane Piper, who had taken office a month earlier.

Court documents note that they attempted to appeal their termination to Piper, but he said he lacked authority to grant an appeal because layoffs were not appealable.

They then tried to appeal to Carson, the county’s personnel services director, and requested their appeals be forwarded to the local civil service board.

According to court documents, Carson denied their request to appeal in March 2013 and to send their appeals to the board, also stating that a layoff is not appealable under the local civil service handbook and policies.

Specifically, the handbook states: “Employees who are covered by the Forsyth County civil service system may be subject to reassignment, reclassification, transfer, non-disciplinary demotion, non-disciplinary suspension, administrative leave, and separation resulting from layoff without cause and with no right to appeal.”

Selke and the others then filed a petition for a “writ of mandamus” in Forsyth County Superior Court to force Carson to forward their appeals to the civil service board. According to court documents, a writ of mandamus is considered an “extraordinary remedy” used to compel a public official to perform a required duty.

Following a hearing in July, visiting Superior Court Judge G. Grant Brantley granted the county’s motion to dismiss the deputies’ appeals. Selke and the others then filed a direct appeal with the state Supreme Court.

Attorneys for Carson, the civil service board and the county filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, arguing the deputies improperly filed a direct — or automatic — appeal with the state Supreme Court when they were required under the law to ask permission to appeal under the discretionary appeal procedures.

The court agreed, its decision coming about two months after it heard 20-minute arguments from both sides.

At that time, LoRusso said Brantley had erred in his decision to dismiss the former officers’ appeals. He also pointed to the more than 200 years of experience among his clients, whose ranks ranged from sergeant to captain.

He also maintained that when they were being laid off in February 2013 by Piper, the agency was filling spots for new deputies.

At the time of the cuts, Piper described them as part of an agency restructuring aimed at increasing efficiency and lowering the budget.

Jarrard argued that the process by which the 11 officers were trying to appeal Carson’s decision was incorrect.

According to Jarrard, the appellate path was not the way to argue the case, pointing to a rule saying “discretionary deals is the appropriate mechanism by which this matter should have been brought to the court today.”

In its ruling Monday, the court sided with the county.

According to the decision, “Generally speaking, judgments or orders granting or refusing to grant mandamus are appealable directly. However, official code of Georgia § 5-6-35 (a) (1) requires an appellant to file an application for a discretionary appeal from a decision of a superior court reviewing the decision of a state or local administrative agency.

“In this case, Carson, the personnel services director, made an administrative department decision refusing to forward appellants’ appeals to the civil service board. Because Carson’s decision was reviewed by the Superior Court, it was incumbent upon appellants to proceed by discretionary appeal.”

LoRusso disagreed with the court’s ruling.

“What the Supreme Court basically said is an individual in the Forsyth County government is an agency,” he said. “The Supreme Court interprets the law of the state of Georgia, so their opinions are always correct. They are the final word.

“My only regret is I wish they agreed with us. I think these folks should have gotten the hearing,” he said. “We’re disappointed.”

 

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