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Georgia Court Clerk Liable for Failure to Inform Prison Officials of Sentence Reduction

The Georgia Supreme Court has held that a court clerk is not entitled to official immunity in a lawsuit claiming negligent performance of a ministerial duty. At the heart of the case was the clerk’s failure to inform prison officials about a court order that reduced a prisoner’s sentence.

Calvin McGee filed suit against Juanita Hicks and Geneva Blanton, in their respective capacities as clerk of the Superior Court of Fulton County and an employee of that office, for negligence for failing to perform their ministerial duty under OCGA § 42-5-50(a), which requires the court clerk to notify the commissioner of the Department of Corrections within 30 working days following receipt of a prisoner’s sentence.

The trial judge had signed a one-page “amended order” that changed McGee’s sentence to provide for a May 27, 2001 maximum release date rather than a previously-ordered release date of June 27, 2003. Blanton received the order on July 20, 2000; she placed it in processing to be filed and took no other action. McGee was not released from prison until March 2003 – 22 months after his amended release date.

Blanton and Hicks moved to dismiss the claim against them in their individual capacity, which was denied by the trial court. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The trial court subsequently granted their motion for summary judgment on the basis that they were entitled to official immunity because the court order contained no language that it was a reduction or modification of sentence, was not accompanied by a final disposition form and did not instruct the clerk to notify prison officials of a sentence reduction.

McGee appealed, the Court of Appeals reversed and the Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari on two questions. As to the first, the Supreme Court held the appellate court had correctly found the trial court erred in deciding that Blanton and Hicks did not breach the ministerial duty imposed upon them by OCGA § 42-5-50(a).

The Supreme Court disagreed that the trial court’s order was a “type of non-sentencing order,” as the record directly contradicted a finding that it did not contain language that reduced or modified a sentence. Additionally, state law does not excuse the clerk from completing ministerial duties merely because the judge did not include a final disposition form or specifically order the clerk to take action.

“The amended order unambiguously involved a criminal defendant’s sentence whether or not appellants recognized it as such,” the Supreme Court wrote. The lack of that recognition may evidence “negligent performance of the simple, ab-solute, and definite act” required by OCGA § 42-5-50(a).

As to the second question, the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals had erred in its application of the “law of the case” rule, as the appellate court’s first opinion in McGee’s case did not resolve the issue of whether the defendants were entitled to official immunity. Regardless, the Court of Appeal’s judgment was affirmed and the case remanded for further proceedings against Hicks and Blanton. See: Hicks v. McGee, 289 Ga. 573, 713 S.E.2d 841 (Ga. 2011), reconsideration denied.

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Related legal case

Hicks v. McGee