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New Grants of Petitions for Certiorari in Civil Cases

October 23, 2013

The Supreme Court has granted two new petitions for certiorari in civil cases in the last week. Summaries of the cases and issues are below.

S13G1590. AUSTIN v. CLARK et al.

This case involves the proper application of the doctrine of official immunity. Donna Austin was injured as she was leaving the graduation ceremony at Peach County High School when she stepped from the sidewalk into the road and her leg became stuck in a water drain in the curb. Austin sued the school district and a number of individual defendants. The trial court dismissed the claims, finding claims against the school district were barred by sovereign immunity and that claims against the individual defendants were barred by official immunity.

The Court of Appeals (McFadden, Doyle, Boggs) unanimously affirmed the decision of the trial court regarding official immunity and the individual defendants, finding that the methods used to eliminate or avoid hazards are left to the discretion of school officials. Because the duties involved were discretionary, the claims were properly dismissed on the basis of official immunity. The Court of Appeals also reversed the trial court decision on sovereign immunity.

On October 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously granted the petition for certiorari to consider the following issue:

  1. Whether the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s order granting the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss based on official immunity.

The case has been assigned to the February 2014 oral argument calendar.

S13G1626. HODGE, ADMRX., et al. v. URFA-SEXTON, LP et al.

This case considers the question of whether a paralegal who has knowledge of a case can disqualify an entire law firm from representing a party. Monica Williams was shot to death in January 2010 at an apartment complex owned by URFA-Sexton LP. Hodge is the administrator of Williams’ estate and retained the law firm of Hanks Brookes to investigate potential claims against URFA-Sexton related to Williams’ death. Kristi Bussey was a paralegal at Hanks Brookes and participated in the investigation into potential claims, as well as assisting Hodge in being appointed the administrator of the estate. URFA-Sexton retained Insley & Race LLC in March 2010 to represent it in connection with the potential case threatened by Hodge. A year later (but before the suit was filed), Bussey interviewed for a paralegal position at Insley & Race and was hired. Bussey said she did not become aware of the potential conflict until just before Hodge filed this case in November 2011. After informing her superiors, Insley & Race implemented screening measures and Bussey provided affidavits that she never disclosed or discussed any confidential information regarding the Williams case with anyone at Insley & Race. After suing URFA-Sexton, Hodge filed a motion to disqualify Insley & Race, claiming that Bussey’s employment was a conflict of interest. The trial court denied the motion but certified the issue for immediate review.

The Court of Appeals (Ray, Barnes, Miller) unanimously affirmed the decision of the trial court, finding that, as a matter of first impression, the standards that apply to automatically disqualify lawyers and their firms under the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct do not apply to nonlawyer employees of law firms. While a screening process should be strictly followed, a paralegal’s knowledge should not automatically disqualify an entire firm. The findings by the trial court that Insley & Race instituted sufficient and timely screening measures was not clearly erroneous.

On October 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously granted the petition for certiorari to consider the following issue:

  1. Whether the Court of Appeals correctly held that a conflict of interest involving a non-lawyer can be remedied by implementing proper screening measures in order to avoid disqualification of the entire law firm?

The case has been assigned to the February 2014 oral argument calendar.

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