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Sovereign Immunity Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award Against Georgia DOC

Sovereign Immunity Doesn’t Bar Attorney Fee Award Against Georgia DOC

by David Reutter

The Georgia Supreme Court held on June 16, 2014 that sovereign immunity does not bar an award of attorney fees and litigation costs against the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC).

The ruling resulted from certiorari review of an appellate court’s decision in a negligence action brought by former prisoner David Lee Couch. While part of a work crew from Walker State Prison, Couch was working as a painter during renovations on the warden’s house in 2004. As he walked through the kitchen, he fell when a dry-rotted joist gave way, causing him to land with his legs straddling the joist.

Couch sustained a severed urethra which resulted in several surgeries, and later filed a tort action. Sixteen months before trial, the GDOC rejected his offer of settlement for $24,000. A jury, however, found state prison officials liable, awarding Couch $105,417 in compensatory damages on March 27, 2009. The verdict was upheld on appeal. See: Couch v. GDOC, 312 Ga. App. 544, 718 S.E.2d 875 (Ga. Ct. App. 2011).

With post-judgment interest and court costs, the award totaled $123,855.66 when Couch moved for attorney fees and expenses. The trial court rejected the GDOC’s argument that sovereign immunity prevented an award of fees and costs. The court then found that Couch had a 40% contingency fee agreement, and limited his attorney fees to $49,542; it also awarded $4,782 in litigation costs. An appellate court affirmed.

The Georgia Supreme Court granted review on the sovereign immunity issue and the limiting of attorney fees to the contingency agreement. As to sovereign immunity, at issue was the “offer of settlement” statute, OGA § 9-11-68(b)(2). Relevant here was the provision that a plaintiff who receives a final judgment greater than 125% of a rejected settlement offer is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees and expenses “[f]rom the date of rejection of the offer of settlement through the entry of judgment.”

The Supreme Court found the Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA) waives state immunity for tort claims. It also found an award under § 9-11-68(b) does not create an independent tort; it is “wholly dependent upon the parties’ conduct during the underlying tort action,” which led to “the conclusion that sovereign immunity is indeed waived for such awards.”

There are no statutory provisions to show “that the General Assembly, which waived sovereign immunity for tort actions against the state in the GTCA, meant for state defendants and their lawyers to then feel free to violate the rules set forth for the proper conduct of such civil litigation and thus sabotage the ‘just, speedy, and inexpensive determination’ of such actions,” the Court wrote.

Having found sovereign immunity does not apply to attorney fee awards, the state Supreme Court turned to the award itself and concluded the trial court had erred in calculating the fee award. Couch’s attorneys sought $250 an hour for nearly 370 hours of work, or $92,475. A “contingency fee agreement is not conclusive, and it cannot bind the court in determining [the] reasonable value” of an attorney’s work, the Court held. The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed with directions to calculate Couch’s attorney fee award from the date of the rejection of the settlement offer through the entry of judgment. See: Georgia Department of Corrections v. Couch, 295 Ga. 469, 759 S.E.2d 804 (Ga. 2014), reconsideration denied.


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Related legal cases

Georgia Department of Corrections v. Couch

Couch v. GDOC