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Released Opinions

March 29, 2014

The Supreme Court of Georgia completed the January term on Friday, when the Court released opinions in 14 cases. Three of those cases are within the scope of our coverage and the issues and opinions are summarized below. Unfortunately the practice of law prevented us from posting on Friday and we apologize for the delay.

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.

On March 28, 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed in part and vacated in part. Writing for the Court, Justice Nahmias explained that the evidence was sufficient to support an injunction under the workplace violence statute, but the scope of the injunction was too broad. Instead of being limited to Apple stores and the specific employees involved, it also prohibited communication with anyone in the world who is an Apple employee even if Danforth was unaware of the connection to Apple. Thus, while the Court affirmed the injunction order to the extent it involved Apple employees and the specific location, it vacated the injunction and remanded to the trial court to enter an order with a more limited scope.

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.

On March 28, 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. Writing for the Court, Justice Blackwell explained that the most natural and reasonable understanding of the will’s provisions was that personal property connected to the business was to to be distributed to the appellants. The Court of Appeals was also correct in finding that the precise identification of the property amounting to business interests was for the factfinder.

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.

On March 28, 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part in a 6-1 vote (Benham, dissenting). Writing for the Court, Justice Melton explained that Fulton County holds the easements and has responsibility to maintain them for as long as it holds them. Fulton County is not prohibited by the constitution or statutes relating to new cities from maintaining the easements, but is only responsible for the easements are transferred or terminated. Writing in dissent, Justice Benham would have found Fulton County was constitutionally prohibited from maintaining the easements.

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