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Articles Posted in Appellate Law

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“Isn’t that a jury question?”  As a trial lawyer who has tried 75 jury trials in Georgia, that is my default position, i.e., a jury should decide each issue of fact. Not a trial judge and certainly not an appellate court. Juries perform this task of finding facts every day, in every courtroom in the United States. It’s what juries do…and it’s the very foundation our system of Justice is built upon.

Yet, too often, we see trial judges, and then even appellate judges, invade the province of the jury and decide the case for herself/himself. This, plain and simply, is not allowed. The Standard of Review of a denial of a motion for summary judgment, for example, requires [an appellate] Court to “view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. And at the summary-judgment stage, we do not resolve disputed facts, reconcile the issues, weigh the evidence, or determine its credibility, as those matters must be submitted to a jury for resolution.” Orr v. SSC Atlanta Operating Co., 860 S.E.2d 217, 222 (Ga. Ct. App. 2021), reconsideration denied (July 14, 2021). It really can’t be any plainer than that.

The United States Supreme Court, the highest appellate Court in the country, rarely, if ever, even discusses issues of fact, much less decides them. You can imagine my surprise, then, when in today’s oral argument in United States v. Tsarnaev I heard Justice Sotomayor ask exactly that question:  “Isn’t that for a jury to decide?”   Whoa! Wait a minute! What just happened?!  A Supreme Court Justice never asks a question like that, does she? And yet I heard it with my own two ears! Interesting.

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You may remember I wrote recently about the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in Nuckles v. State, 853 S.E.2d 81 (December 2020) in which the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that a loved one has the absolute right to place a hidden camera in a loved one’s room in an assisted living facility or long-term care home and that video from such a camera is admissible in court. And, of course, it should be. The resident or patient is considered an “occupier” of that property, i.e., his or her room, and may videotape what occurs on his “property.” Nuckles is a well-reasoned, common sense opinion authored by Judge Carla Wong McMillian and concurred in by all the other members of the Georgia Supreme Court, except Justice Warren who simply didn’t participate in the opinion for some reason.

That you should be able to videotape what treatment your loved one is getting in a long-term care home, and then when that videotape shows abuse by a caregiver, that you should be able to admit such videotape into evidence at trial does not seem to be a partisan or political position at all, does it?  Don’t both Republicans and Democrats alike want the very best care for their aging loved ones and don’t Republicans and Democrats alike want to hold someone who would abuse their loved one accountable? That only makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well, not so fast. Enter the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate with the help of the nursing home lobby. The Georgia Legislature decides it’s not such a good idea to be able to hold abusers accountable through hidden camera videotape, taken in the resident’s own room (their “castle” so to speak) and file a bill to undo Nuckles.  This march to overturn Nuckles legislatively only two months later  started with HB 605.  This bill actually provided for criminal prosecution of anyone who set up a “nanny cam” in their loved one’s long-term care room. So imagine this:  your parent suffers from dementia and lives in an assisted living home. You suspect he is being abused both physically and emotionally by the staff, so you set up a hidden camera to see how they treat him while you are not present. Sure enough, your “nannycam” video shows a staff member slapping your parent. You want to bring criminal charges against the person for abusing your parent.  But HB 605 would have actually authorized criminal charges against you! That bill passed the House. So on to the Senate. It was placed on the calendar to be voted on on the last night of the General Assembly session. There, Senator Jen Jordan, and several other open-minded Senators, successfully amended the bill to eliminate the criminal prosecution provision in the scenario I laid out above. So the Senate passed that bill as amended. Now back to the House, during the final hours on the final day of the 2021 session.  But once the piece in the bill making it illegal to have hidden cameras was no longer in the bill, the bill lost its only reason to exist in the first place! No need to pass a bill that essentially says nothing. The folks behind this bill wanted a law against hidden cameras because they can be used to hold these homes and “caregivers” liable for harming their residents.  The House refuses to agree (by the narrowest of margins) to the Senate Substitute and so no law passes. The vote on this was 88 against and 77 in favor, so only an 11 vote margin. This law now is still out there to be picked up again by the Legislature when they begin their 2022 General Assembly Session.

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Having spent several days at home for the Holidays, I was struck (and not in a good way) about how many commercials there are on TV for personal injury lawyers. It is NON-stop. And the same goes for social media, where plaintiff’s lawyer after plaintiff’s lawyer is shown in a video bragging about themselves. It’s sickening, and I don’t think these commercial appearances enhance our reputation at all.  Just the opposite. So I thought I would take a moment to list a few things that a person like you who has recently been injured due to someone else’s negligence should consider before hiring one.

  1. How many cases has the lawyer actually tried for a plaintiff in front of a jury?  I have seen some young lawyers bragging online about their one awesome verdict, which begs the question: How many cases have they actually tried?  Have they tried only one case and it came out well for the plaintiff?  Potential clients should ask this question. In 32 years of practicing law, I have tried over 75 jury trials to verdict, some lasting 2-3 weeks. This is critical information. Hopefully, as a plaintiff, this is the only case you will ever have in your life. If it were surgery, would you want a doctor who had performed only one surgery before yours?  Or would you want one who had done  100 of them?
  2. Is the lawyer on TV even licensed to practice law in Georgia? I am constantly amazed by the fact that some of the TV advertising lawyers are not even licensed to practice law in the State of Georgia. This means they haven’t studied and worked with the laws of our state and they certainly haven’t tried a case in a state court of Georgia. You have a right to know this and you can easily find this out by going to the website of the State Bar of Georgia at https://www.gabar.org/.  On the home page there is a search box titled “Member Directory.”  This is a resource available to the public and you can put a lawyer’s name in it and see whether they have a Georgia law license. You can also see where the lawyer went to law school and see what year he or she graduated from law school, which tells you how much real world experience the lawyer has. It also tells you whether there is any “discipline” on record for that particular lawyer, which means whether that lawyer was ever found to have violated the ethical or professional rules of conduct. This is crucial information everyone should have before hiring a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer.

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I was checking the newly released opinions from the United States Supreme Court and Taylor v. Riojas (11/2/2020) caught my eye.  I’m not sure why.  I must have seen “qualified immunity” somewhere in the summary. Taylor v. Riojas was one of the bunch of qualified immunity cases coming up at the same time before the Supreme Court and on which there was much speculation over whether the Supreme Court might overturn the qualified immunity doctrine. “Qualified Immunity” is a judicially-created doctrine that gives police officers and correctional officers the benefit of the doubt when someone under their control has suffered injury.  This Judge-made doctrine shields an officer from suit when she/he makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she/her confronted. Excuse the pun, but it is a get-out-of-jail-free card to officers.

I call the Taylor v. Riojas opinion a Loch Ness Monster because it denied correctional officers in Texas the usual qualified immunity. Thus, like the Loch Ness Monster, you have heard of cases in which (hypothetically) qualified immunity was denied but you have never actually seen one.  Well, now you have. The United States Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit and remanded the case for trial.  Before we take stock of that, you need to know the facts of the case.  I am quoting directly from the 2 and 1/4 page opinion, perhaps the shortest in Supreme Court history.

“Petitioner Trent Taylor is an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Taylor alleges that, for six full days in September 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells. The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in “ ‘massive amounts’ of feces”: all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls, and even “ ‘packed inside the water faucet.’ ” Taylor v. Stevens, 946 F.3d 211, 218 (CA5 2019). Fearing that his food and water would be contaminated, Taylor did not eat or drink for nearly four days. Correctional officers then moved Taylor to a second, frigidly cold cell, which was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes. Taylor held his bladder for over 24 hours, but he eventually (and involuntarily) relieved himself, causing the drain to overflow and raw sewage to spill across the floor. Because the cell lacked a bunk, and because Taylor was confined without clothing, he was left to sleep naked in sewage.

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We received some sad news this Thanksgiving weekend about a dear friend.  Justice George Carley had died.

Many tributes are now coming in about Justice Carley. One, from Judge William Ray, (U.S.D.C.,Northern District of Georgia) touched me and let me know we had similar relationships with Justice Carley. The Georgia Supreme Court, from which he retired, also paid tribute to him and I urge you to watch it.  These tributes reminded me of my relationship with Justice Carley that I now share with you in memory of him.

Justice Carley was a proud “Double Dawg,” meaning he graduated from both undergraduate school and law school at The University of Georgia, often referred to as just “The University,” as if there were no others.  He is the only person to have served as both Presiding Judge and Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, and the Presiding Judge and Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Georgia.

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Friends:

I am happy to share with you that I have recently begun co-hosting a podcast called “See You In Court.” “See You In Court” is a podcast sponsored by the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation, on which I sit as a Board Member.  My co-host is Lester Tate, partner and owner of the law firm Akin & Tate in Cartersville, Georgia.  Lester is also, as I am, a Past President of the State Bar of Georgia and is also a Board Member of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation.

“See You In Court” podcast is a joint project of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation and the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Literature, Media and Communication. The Georgia Civil Justice System is a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to educate the public about the Georgia Civil Justice System and its value to the public in enforcing rights and holding negligent actors accountable for injuries they have caused.  The Georgia Institute of Technology School of  Literature, Media and Communication defines new models of intellectual inquiry and practice that bring diverse humanistic perspectives to bear on technological invention and innovation.  The School’s mission is to lead the region, the nation, and the world in researching and teaching the ways the humanities shape and are shaped by science and technology. Understanding technologies in their cultural contexts is fundamental to invention and innovation. The School’s diverse faculty and students assess and inform technological and scientific change by creating, analyzing, and critiquing a broad range of media forms and cultural practices.

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I am struck today by the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court yesterday to rule that the Governor and the head of its Public Health Department did not have the authority to issue stay-at-home mandates during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Governor of Wisconsin said, Wisconsin is now the “wild, wild west.” Chaos has already ensued in the less than 24 hours since the ruling, as predicted by Governor Tony Evers. Bars were packed last night in Wisconsin, with absolutely no social distancing (from the photos it looks like no distancing at all) and no masks being worn. World-leading scientists and epidemiologists predict this will necessarily cause a spike in Covid-19 cases and unnecessary suffering and deaths.

The first thing to note of this decision is that the case was brought by Republican Wisconsin Legislators against the Governor, so that essentially the Legislators were suing saying a bill they had passed was unconstitutional. Wait. What? How is that possible? They passed it. Surely, they can’t now file suit claiming the very thing they wrote, voted on and passed was actually unconstitutional from the get go. This turns the legislative process on its head.

The second thing to note is that this was a decision that ran along party lines in a very politicized state supreme court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative-backed majority split in the 4-3 decision, with Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, Justice Daniel Kelly, who recently lost his bid for election, Justice Annette Ziegler, and Justice Rebecca Bradley voting to overturn Palm’s order. Conservative-backed Justice Brian Hagedorn joined the court’s two liberal-backed members, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and Justice Rebecca Dallet, in dissent.  You may remember that Justice Kelly, a Republican, recently ran for reelection as a Republican and even had the President of the United States come to Wisconsin and campaign for him in a unabashed political statement. Justice Kelly lost to a Democrat, Jill Karofsky but, alas, that Democrat hasn’t taken her seat on the bench yet. Otherwise, there is no question this decision would have come out the other way given the fact that even one Conservative justice sided with the dissenters. This recent election, you may recall, was another politicized decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court as it ruled that the election in April, during the height of the Coronvirus crisis, had to proceed as originally scheduled and that Wisconsin citizens had to vote in person. Undoubtedly, the Republican members of the Supreme Court thought this would hold voting down as surely folks wouldn’t want to risk their lives voting, of all things But surprise! It didn’t work, and the Liberal Democratic candidate beat the Republican candidate who POTUS personally endorsed. Karofsky credited her win to voters rising up and rejecting Republican efforts to suppress turnout. “People were willing to do that because they wanted their voices to be heard in this election,” she said. “A lot of times on election day we’re wringing our hands because we’re so upset about voter apathy. That wasn’t the problem on Tuesday. People wanted their voices heard.”

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Friends:

To say we are experiencing unprecedented times with the global pandemic of Coronavirus-COVID-19 would be a massive understatement. I hope you and your family are well, staying safe and healthy and weathering this storm. I am continuing working on all of my cases to the maximum extent I can at my home. With remote work capability, super high-speed internet and my case management system “in the Cloud,” I can work on any case from any location. I want to let you know how our Georgia Civil and Criminal Justice Systems are adapting to this season we find ourselves in and keep you up to date on all things legal in Georgia right now.

First, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Harold Melton has issued a Statewide Judicial Emergency Order through 11:59 a.m April 13, 2020.  I believe Chief Justice Melton has shown great leadership with the issuance of this Order and through it, is doing the Court’s part in not spreading the virus in our courtrooms and alleviating much anxiety among litigants and lawyers.

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Today marked the last day on the job for Justice Robert Benham. That “job” being no less than serving on the state’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Georgia. A true pioneer, he was the second African-American graduate of UGA law school and the first to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court. He is retiring after 36 years on the appellate Courts (5 on Georgia Court of Appeals and 31 on Supreme Court). Appointed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris in December 1989, he was the first African-American ever appointed to the Supreme Court in its more than 140 years.  He  served in the United States Army Reserve attaining the rank of captain, and served as a trial attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid among many other professional accomplishments.  A lifelong resident of Georgia, Justice Benham was born to Jesse Knox Benham and Clarence Benham in Cartersville, Georgia. He obtained a B.S. in Political Science from Tuskegee University in 1967 and also attended Harvard University. In 1970 he obtained his Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia, Lumpkin School of Law. He obtained Master of Laws degree from the University of Virginia in 1989.

As a tribute to Justice Benham, I am sharing my remarks from the 2013 Justice Robert Benham Community Service Awards.  Prompted by concerns about the decreasing number of lawyers in leadership positions in public and community service, then Chief Justice Robert Benham in 1996 created a Community Service Task Force under the auspices of the Commission on Professionalism.  Composed of leaders of the bench and bar in Georgia, the Task Force determined to encourage, support, and recognize within the profession the tradition that all lawyers perform community service and measure their success in ways other than just financial gain.  To accomplish its purpose, the Task Force created the Justice Robert Benham Annual Awards for Community Service in partnership with the State Bar to honor lawyers and judges from the ten judicial districts of Georgia who have made outstanding contributions in the area of community service.  Since 1998, the Commission has coordinated the selection and presentation of these Awards.

Justice Benham, to say you will be missed on the bench is an understatement. I will always think of you with great love and admiration.  You are the ultimate role model for any lawyer.  The hallmarks of your career and life are integrity, kindness, compassion for others and  wisdom. You deserve only the best in your retirement. Godspeed!

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I was struck this week with an opinion of the Georgia Court of Appeals in what is probably a very rare scenario:  where the defendant has already served his entire sentence but the Court exercises jurisdiction to hear the appeal anyway. I would be curious to know how often that happens. My guess is almost never. So the scenario grabbed my attention since it is probably so rare.  And you might be asking “What’s the point?” if the defendant is already out of prison anyway. Well, the Court answers “what’s the point” succinctly by saying Justice is the point. Justice is the point.

The case I am talking about is Denson v. State, A19A2307, 2020 WL 255433 (Ga. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2020), authored by Judge Yvette Miller and concurred by Judge Rickman and Judge Reese.  I commend it to your reading. It is a doozy.  In this criminal appeal, the trial court did not hear the convicted defendant’s motion for new trial (that had ben timely filed in 2007) until 9 years after it had been filed, and the Georgia Court of Appeals did not resolve the defendant’s direct appeal until 13 years after the original conviction of defendant and after the defendant had served his entire sentence.  Wait. What?

That’s right. And the Georgia Court of Appeals made it clear it would ignore the mootness of the their review, since the Defendant had already served his unjustly imposed sentence, to issue a warning to Georgia trial courts of the grave injusctice they may be doing to otherwise innocent criminal defendants.  Whew.  Like I said, it’s a doozy.

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