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Released Opinions

March 7, 2011

The Supreme Court released opinions in 19 cases this morning, three of which are civil.  Brief summaries of each case and the opinions released are below.

S10A1517. Democratic Party of Georgia, Inc. v. Perdue et al.

This is the last currently-filed case challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s requirement that in-person voters provide photo identification when casting their ballots.  Previous challenges to Georgia’s photo identification laws based on federal law were turned back by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  A different challenge was initially granted by the Fulton County Superior Court but later denied by the Georgia Supreme Court based on standing.  In this action, the Democratic Party challenged the state’s photo identification laws as violating the state constitution.

The trial court granted the State’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the entire case, finding that an absolute right to vote based on four qualifications in the Georgia Constitution does not exist and that the photo identification provisions did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Georgia Constitution.  In making its decision, the trial court adopted the holdings of two federal court cases on the federal Equal Protection Clause.

The Appellant’s brief argues that the photo identification requirements impose a condition on voting beyond the qualifications listed in the Georgia Constitution, and that the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Georgia Constitution because strict scrutiny should be applied and even if strict scrutiny did not apply, no rational basis exists for the act.  The Appellee’s brief agrees with the trial court ruling, arguing that the photo identification requirement does not deny any registered voter the right to vote, and that the burden imposed by the act is minimal.  A reply brief was filed by Appellant on September 2, 2010, reinforcing the arguments made in the original brief.

The case was heard at oral argument on September 7, 2010.

On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court in a 6-1 decision (Benham dissenting).  Writing for the Court, Justice Thompson explained that the photo identification requirement is not an impermissible qualification to vote because the legislature may make reasonable regulations related to the voting process. The Georgia Constitution does not require that citizens be allowed to vote in any particular manner. Further, the Equal Protection Clause of the Georgia Constitution is coextensive with the U.S. Constitution and the photo identification requirements impose a “minimal, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory restriction which is warranted by the important regulatory interests of preventing voter fraud.”  Justice Benham dissented, arguing the requirement is an impermissible burden on the right to vote.

Disclosure: Strickland Brockington Lewis partner Anne Lewis serves as a Special Assistant Attorney General representing the State of Georgia in this case.

S10G0521. American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Company v. Hathaway Development Company, Inc.

This case involves insurance coverage in a construction dispute.  The main issue in the case is whether the subcontractor’s commercial general liability (CGL) insurance policy covered the damage caused by the subcontractor’s actions.  The case arose when Hathaway, as a general contractor, hired a subcontractor to perform plumbing work for it at three different sites.  After problems appeared with the plumbing, Hathaway sued the subcontractor for negligent construction and obtained a default judgment.  Hathaway then attempted to collect the judgment from the subcontractor’s CGL insurer, American Empire Surplus Lines.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the insurer, holding that the subcontractor failed to give sufficient notice of the suit, that the claims did not arise from an “occurrence” as defined by the policy, and that the claims were excluded by the terms of the policy.

The Court of Appeals (Barnes, Miller, and Andrews) unanimously reversed, finding that the insurer had notice of the claims.  The Court of Appeals also determined that term “occurrence,” defined in the policy as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions,” applied to the damage in this case.  The insurer argued the damage was intentional, not accidental, but the court found that negligently performed work may constitute an occurrence.  Finally, the Court of Appeals found the policy exclusions argued by the insurer did not apply.

The Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari on May 3, 2010 in a 4-3 vote (Hunstein, Carley, and Benham dissenting) to consider the following question:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err in its construction of the term “occurrence” as defined by the insurance policy in question?

The Appellant argues that the damage was intentional because the plumber was paid to perform the work in question.  The Appellee focuses on the inability to repair the work, and the wider damage caused to the property.  The Associated General Contractors filed an amicus brief in support of the contractor and urging the Supreme Court to affirm the Court of Appeals’ decision.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument on September 13, 2010.

On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals in a 6-1 decision (Melton dissenting).  Writing for the Court, Justice Thompson found that an occurrence can arise as a result of faulty workmanship where that workmanship causes unforeseen or unexpected damage to property.  Justice Melton dissented, finding that an “accident” cannot be intentional behavior, such as the work of the plumber in this case.

S10G1471. BROWN INVESTMENT GROUP, LLC v. CITY OF SAVANNAH et al.

This case originated with the demolition of a building.  Brown Investment Group purchased a building at a tax sale, but the city subsequently determined the building was unsafe and demolished it prior to the expiration of the right of redemption.  Brown sued the City, claiming the value of the building, saying the building had been illegally demolished.  The trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, stating that Brown did not have standing because it did not hold legal title to the property at the time of demolition.  Brown appealed.

The Court of Appeals (Andrews, Ellington, Doyle) unanimously affirmed the trial court, finding that Brown was not the legal owner because the tax deed did not convey legal title, but rather a defeasible title that could be redeemed within a year.

Brown filed a petition for writ of certiorari, arguing that the Court of Appeals decision has massive implications by finding a tax sale purchase does not have enough rights to protect its interest in property.  The City responded, arguing that the interest was subject to the right of redemption until 12 months after the sale, and that the petition for certiorari should be denied.

On November 1, 2010, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in a 5-2 vote (Hunstein and Benham dissenting) to consider the following issue:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err by finding that Brown Investment Group, LLC lacked standing to sue the City of Savannah for trespass?

Brown filed its principal brief (which appears to be the same as its petition for certiorari) and the City responded.  Brown then filed a supplemental brief.

The Court heard oral argument on the case on February 8, 2011.

On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Court of Appeals.  Writing for the Court, Justice Carley found that the tax sale purchaser does not have a sufficient interest in the property, agreeing with the Court of Appeals on the issue of standing.

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