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Forthcoming Opinions – End of Distress in Sight

March 26, 2014

As the Supreme Court of Georgia completes its distress period ahead of the end of the January term, the Court announced today it will release opinions in 14 cases on Friday, March 28, 2014 at noon. Three of those cases are within the scope of our coverage and are summarized below. We will update on Friday with links to the opinions.

S13A1650 Danforth v. Apple Inc.

This case involves the use of Georgia’s workplace violence statute against a former employee of the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta. Catherine Danforth began working at the Apple Store in August 2011 after having been diagnosed with a variety of different mental illnesses over the course of her life. After working at the store for a year, Apple fired Danforth for inappropriate verbal outbursts and displays of extreme emotion in front of customers. Several months after firing Danforth, Apple sought an injunction under Georgia’s workplace violence prevention statute (OCGA 34-1-7), claiming that Danforth was stalking its employees, sending long emails, leaving disturbing voicemails, and showing up at the store despite being asked not to do so. Following a hearing, a Cobb County Superior Court judge issued a permanent injunction prohibiting Danforth from entering any Apple store for a period of three years or having any contact with Apple employees. Danforth appealed.

The case was heard on November 19, 2013.

S13G1709 England, Executrix v. Simmons et al.

This case involves the proper allocation of property in a will. (While we would not typically cover estate cases, this case involves the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and thus is within our coverage.) Robert Haege operated a business, was unmarried, and had no children. In his will, he gave personal assets to his brother and sister, but gave business interests to several of his employees. Two employees filed a declaratory judgment action to clarify whether they were entitled to the business property. The superior court found that Haege was a sole proprietor of his business and that, as a result, all of the property used in his business was personal property. Thus, the superior court found there was no business property to give to the employees from Haege’s estate.

The employees appealed to the Supreme Court because it has exclusive jurisdiction in “all cases involving wills” under the Georgia Constitution. But the Supreme Court transferred the case to the Court of Appeals because the question on appeal was whether the estate contained “business property.”

The Court of Appeals then reversed the trial court in a 5-2 decision (McFadden, Phipps, Barnes, Ellington reversing; Doyle concurring in the judgment only; Boggs and Branch dissenting), finding that every part of the will had to be given meaning. As a result, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for the superior court to identify what assets were Haege’s business interests so that the sentence regarding Haege’s business interests could be given meaning. Judge Boggs in dissent would have found that no business property existed because it was not possible as a matter of law to distinguish between Haege and the business.

The Court of Appeals majority stated that it had jurisdiction to construe the terms of the will because it has the ability to determine issues that are “merely ancillary” to issues within the Supreme Court’s general appellate jurisdiction, and failing to decide the meaning of the will would undermine the Supreme Court’s transfer order. In dissent, Judge Boggs stated the Supreme Court already determined that the appeal did not require a construction of the will, but merely a determination whether any property existed for the bequests to transfer.

On November 14, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously granted the petition for certiorari to review the following issues:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err in deciding issues that are exclusively within the jurisdiction of this Court?
  2. Did the Court of Appeals err in finding that the decedent’s estate included business property to be distributed to the appellants pursuant to the decedent’s will?

The case was heard on February 17, 2014.

S14A0114 Fulton County et al. v. City of Sandy Springs et al.

This case is a dispute between Fulton County and Sandy Springs about which government is responsible for maintaining stormwater detention ponds. In the 1970s, Fulton County obtained easements to construct and maintain two detention ponds to address surface flooding issues for homeowners. The County constructed the detention ponds inside what became the city limits of Sandy Springs in 2005. After Sandy Springs was incorporated, the city and County never signed an intergovernmental agreement regarding stormwater management. In 2009, Sandy Springs notified Fulton County that there were problems with the detention ponds that the County needed to address. Fulton County did not respond and Sandy Springs sued, seeking a writ of mandamus. The trial court determined that Fulton County was responsible for maintaining the ponds. The County appealed to the Supreme Court.

The case was heard on January 6, 2014.

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