Georgia Supreme Court reverses ruling in Dougherty child abuse registry case

A child abuse registry case in Dougherty County has been sent back to trial court from the Georgia Supreme Court with a directive that it be dismissed. (File Photo)

ALBANY — The Georgia Supreme Court has reversed a Dougherty County court ruling that declared Georgia’s Child Abuse Registry unconstitutional.

The opinion issued Monday by the state’s highest court is sending the case back to the trial court with an order to dismiss the case, due in part to the failure of the high school teachers and administrators in Dougherty County who challenged the registry to follow proper procedural rules.

“We cannot properly reach the merits of those challenges – and neither could the trial court – because some of the claims are barred by sovereign immunity, and the remaining ones should have been raised in the then-pending administrative proceeding also initiated by the teachers and administrators,” Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias wrote for a unanimous court. “Accordingly, we reverse the part of the trial court’s order concluding that the court could decide the merits of the challenges, vacate the part of the order declaring the registry statutes and rules to be unconstitutional and granting injunctive relief, and remand with direction to dismiss the case.”

The appeal in this case stems from a lawsuit brought by five Dougherty teachers and school administrators, including Loy Addison. The five worked in the special education program at Albany High School. State officials said that, following two incidents in which several students allegedly groped other students, a child abuse investigator for the Dougherty County Division of Family and Children Services “substantiated” reports of child abuse on the basis that the five teachers and school administrators were inadequately supervising the students in the classroom and lunchroom.

Subsequently, all five were placed on the registry.

A “substantiated case” means child abuse has been confirmed based upon a “preponderance of the evidence.” All five school officers received “notices of inclusion,” notifying each that he or she had been placed on the registry. Georgia law requires the name, age, sex, race, Social Security number, birthdate and a summary of the case be included on the registry. Access to the information on the registry is available only to child abuse investigators, their designees, law enforcement and any state agency that licenses entities related to child care services.

An individual placed on the list has 10 days after receiving notice to file a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. An adverse ruling by the administrative law judge may be appealed to Superior Court and then to Georgia’s appellate courts.

After receiving the notices, Addison and the others promptly requested a hearing before the administrative law judge to appeal the determinations. Prior to the administrative hearing, the five also filed a lawsuit in Dougherty County Superior Court against state officials and three officers in their official and individual capacities, challenging the constitutionality of the registry. In their petition, they sought a “declaratory judgment” from the court asking the court to “declare” the registry unconstitutional, and “injunctive relief,” which a court grants to command or prevent certain actions.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ petition, arguing the claims were improper as a matter of administrative law and procedure. They also argued the suit was barred by sovereign immunity, the legal doctrine that protects the state and its employees in their official capacities from being sued. They also argued that the registry and its statutes and rules were constitutional.

Following a hearing, the trial court ruled in the teachers’ and administrators’ favor, declaring Georgia Code § 49-5-180 through § 49-5-187, as well as the rules and regulations governing the Child Protective Services Information System, unconstitutional. The trial court prohibited the state from including any of the five teachers and administrators as a substantiated child abuser on the computerized registry and from disclosing any of the information. The state then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

In the high court’s opinion, it noted that the state and its employees in their official capacities “should have been dismissed from this case based on sovereign immunity. The plaintiffs’ suit against the employees in their individual capacities is not barred by sovereign immunity, however.” The doctrine of sovereign immunity “usually poses no bar to suits in which state officers are sued in their individual capacities for official acts that are alleged to be unconstitutional.”

The defendants also argued the plaintiffs’ lawsuit should have been dismissed by the Superior Court because the plaintiffs had not exhausted their available administrative remedies before seeking judicial review of their claims. Instead, they filed suit in Superior Court before an administrative law judge had the chance to consider their arguments.

In this case, after requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge, the teachers and administrators were given a hearing date.

“Consequently, the plaintiffs were not permitted to circumvent their pending administrative proceedings by raising their facial constitutional challenges in an independent Superior Court proceeding,” the opinion said. “Having reviewed the record, we can understand why the plaintiffs were so upset about the way in which their names came to be put on the Child Abuse Registry and why they wanted to seek prompt relief in the Superior Court. But having initiated the administrative process available to challenge their listings – the process they were required to use to assert any as-applied constitutional challenges – it is clear under this court’s precedents that they could not jump off that path and head straight to court, even with facial constitutional challenges, nor could they sue the state or its officials.

“The trial court should not have addressed the constitutionality of the registry statutes and rules, and we express no opinion on those questions in this case. The case is remanded with direction to the Superior Court to dismiss it.”

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