ATLANTA — The Supreme Court of Georgia is weighing an appeal from 11 former Forsyth County law enforcement officers who lost their jobs last year.
Monday afternoon, the court heard 20-minute arguments from attorneys for the terminated employees and the county.
Attorney Lance LoRusso, representing the plaintiffs, said visiting Superior Court Judge G. Grant Brantley erred in his July 2013 decision to dismiss the former officers' appeals.
Brantley’s ruling came four months after Patricia Carson, county personnel services director, had denied their request for a hearing before the Forsyth County Civil Service Board.
In April 2013, the former officers filed a writ of mandamus in Forsyth County Superior Court, asking the judge to order the local civil service board to hear the matter. Brantley instead sided with the county's motion to dismiss the case.
Monday, LoRusso 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 Sheriff Duane Piper, who had taken office a month earlier, the agency was filling spots for new deputies.
"They were told their positions were being eliminated, but that's not the case," LoRusso said.
At the time of the cuts, Piper described them as part of an agency restructuring aimed at increasing efficiency and lowering the budget.
According to LoRusso, each of the dismissed employees raised the issue of political retaliation when seeking a civil service hearing.
"[Carson] had a choice," he said. "Instead of taking those appeals when somebody is saying that 'I've been discriminated against' and handing them to the civil service board, she chose to disregard that."
Attorney Ken Jarrard, representing the county, its civil service board and Carson, 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."
"Just like Forsyth County and our civil service process, there are rules on how we perfect appeals, both in front of the county and in front of this court, and I believe those rules were not followed," Jarrard said.
In response to a judge’s question, LoRusso said the officers didn't have any other options.
"The process stops," he said. "Which is exactly what happened here … there is no more administrative process for these 11 employees to take."
LoRusso said the purpose of the civil service board is to allow a hearing "when employees believe they have been aggrieved by improper methods." He also noted there should be no mandamus, or undoing of an act, "unless there is a defect in legal justice that would ensue."
"The denial of due process to 11 law enforcement officers seems a lot like a defect in legal justice," he said. "There are no other available remedies."
Asked by a judge if the sheriff's office was hiring while the 11 employees were being laid off, Jarrard said he didn't know. The attorney added, however, that it wouldn't have made a difference in the correctness of Carson's actions, which is essentially what the court is weighing.
"This cessation of employment was in the form of a layoff," Jarrard said. "The rules are extraordinarily clear that there is no appellate right with respect to a layoff. The rules governing what the civil service board has subject matter jurisdiction to hear do not allow for an appeal of a layoff."
Jarrard argued that had Carson been sympathetic toward the personal stories of the officers and allowed the matter to go through with a hearing, it would have been in "direct contradiction to civil service rules."
"The concerns I believe I'm hearing from the court pertain to policy, not Ms. Carson's actions," Jarrard said.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule sometime later this year on the case and several others it heard Monday.