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Judge rules Dougherty County can sue state for fees

The Dougherty County sheriff is filing suit to collect unpaid process service fees from the state

Dougherty County Attorney Spencer Lee updates the Dougherty Commission Monday on a lawsuit the county filed against the state Department of Human Services. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Dougherty County Attorney Spencer Lee updates the Dougherty Commission Monday on a lawsuit the county filed against the state Department of Human Services. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Dougherty County won Round 1 in its lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Human Service’s Division of Child Support Services when Bainbridge Senior Judge J. Richard Porter III ruled last week that the state department is not immune from the county’s attempts to seek payment for services rendered through the court system.

In what County Attorney Spencer Lee said could be a case that “makes law,” Porter ruled, “Sheriffs’ fees for service of process are separate from court costs and must be paid by the state at the time of filing as mandated by O.C.G.A. 15-16-21 (b)(l) and (g). Thus, defendants’ sovereign immunity argument is without merit, and plaintiffs are entitled to recover service and process fees.”

The lawsuit stems from Dougherty Sheriff Kevin Sproul’s attempts to collect some $110,000 he said his office has not been paid for serving process papers initiated by the Division of Child Support Services to collect child support owed by errant and delinquent parents of dependent children. Sproul contended that the state should pay for attempts to serve papers at locations given to his office by the state department that turned out to be incorrect addresses.

The state balked at paying the fees, claiming the sheriff’s office had not carried out its duties.

“We delivered the papers, as was requested by the state,” Sproul said in an earlier discussion of the matter. “We used our fuel and our vehicles to drive to the addresses given to us by the state, and we used our manpower to make those trips.”

Lee said the county, rather than take the matter to court, attempted to settle with the Department of Human Services for the amount owed the sheriff’s office for successful service of papers.

“As you recall, we attempted to settle for some 40-odd thousand dollars,” Lee told the commission. “That was denied by the state.”

The state also asked that any legal action be moved from the Dougherty Judicial Circuit to the Fulton County Circuit. Porter wrote in his ruling that the request “is not correct. … It is well settled that as a branch of the state government, a defendent is subject to suit in any county in Georgia.”

Lee asked the commission for guidance on whether to seek a settlement in light of Porter’s ruling or to move forward with the litigation.

“In my opinion, this could potentially make law for the state,” the county attorney said. “This could go directly to the state Supreme Court for a decision.”

The commission asked for time to consider the matter before advising Lee.

“No one in this room wanted this (lawsuit) to take place,” Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said. “We simply wanted our sheriff’s office to be paid for the services they provided.”