CITY OF ST. MARYS et al. v. BRINKO.
Brinko v. City of St. Marys et al.
Nos. A13A1456, A13A1457.
-- October 30, 2013
Terry Lee Readdick, Emily Rose Hancock, for City of St. Marys et al.James Edward Stein, for Janet Brinko.
After being terminated from her job with the City of St. Marys, Janet Brinko sued the city, the city manager, the mayor, members of the city council, and a city employee (collectively, “the defendants”). In her complaint, Brinko alleged that the defendants wrongfully terminated her employment, defamed her, and interfered with her employment contract (the “tort claims”). She also alleged that the city had violated her due process rights by denying her request for a post-termination hearing (the “due process claim”).
The defendants jointly filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that Brinko could not prevail on her claims because, among other reasons, she was an at-will employee with no employment contract. Following a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants on Brinko's tort claims, but denied their motion for summary judgment on the due process claim. The court also granted, sua sponte, summary judgment to Brinko on her due process claim and ordered the defendants to provide her with a post-termination hearing.
In Case No. A13A1456, the defendants appeal from the trial court's grant of summary judgment to Brinko on her due process claim and from the court's denial of their motion for summary judgment on that claim. In Case No. A13A1457, Brinko cross-appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants on her tort claims. For the following reasons, we reverse the court's grant of summary judgment to Brinko on her due process claim, reverse its denial of summary judgment to the defendants on the due process claim, and affirm its grant of summary judgment to the defendants on Brinko's tort claims.
“In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment under OCGA § 9–11–56, the moving party must show that there exists no genuine issue of material fact, and that the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demand judgment as a matter of law.” (Citation omitted.) Benton v. Benton, 280 Ga. 468, 470, 629 S.E.2d 204 (2006). Under OCGA § 9–11–56(e), when a party moves for summary judgment and supports his or her motion by submitting affidavits, depositions, or answers to interrogatories, the opposing party “may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but his response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this Code section, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. If he does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against him.” On appeal, the appellate court reviews the grant or denial of summary judgment de novo. Benton v. Benton, 280 Ga. at 470, 629 S.E.2d 204. So viewed, the record shows the following undisputed facts.
From 2002 until July 15, 2010, Brinko was employed by the Convention and Visitors Bureau of the City of St. Marys. Throughout this period, Brinko did not have a written employment contract. According to Brinko, however, she and the city had an oral employment agreement for a term of 50 years. In July 2010, Bill Shanahan, the City Manager and Brinko's supervisor, placed her on administrative leave. Then, during a meeting on July 15, Shanahan and the city's Human Resources Director, Donna Folsom, notified Brinko that her employment was being terminated, effective immediately.
The next day, Brinko notified the city that she was appealing her dismissal and requested a hearing, pursuant to Policy 26 B of the city's Personnel Policy Manual.1 The city responded that a hearing had been scheduled for Tuesday, August 3, that its witnesses would be Folsom and Shanahan, and that Shanahan would also be serving as the hearing officer. On July 29, Brinko sent a letter to Shanahan in which she objected to him serving as both a witness and the hearing officer; she requested that the city provide her with a “fair” hearing, i.e., with someone other than Shanahan serving as the hearing officer. The city did not respond to Brinko's objection, but, instead, notified her on July 30 that the city had designated her appeal as having been withdrawn. According to the city, Brinko had failed to timely submit certain documents, including an evidence list, a list of witnesses, and a written statement explaining why her termination violated the city's policies or was otherwise unlawful, at least three business days prior to the hearing date (i.e., by Thursday, July 29), as required by policy 26 B, section B(3) of the city's policy manual.2 Brinko then filed the instant suit against the city, Shanahan, Folsom, and other city officials.
Case No. A13A1456
1. The defendants contend that the trial court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment on Brinko's due process claim because the undisputed evidence shows that Brinko was an at-will employee and, as a result, she had no protected property interest in her employment. We agree.
A public employee's claim that an employer violated his or her procedural due process rights must fail unless the employee had a protected interest in his or her employment. West v. Dooly County School Dist., 316 Ga.App. 330(1), 729 S.E.2d 469 (2012).
A party is not entitled to procedural due process where the interest which would be impaired by governmental action does not involve that party's protect [ed] interest in life, liberty,[ 3] or property. State law determines whether a public employee has a property interest in his or her job, and defines the dimensions of such interest. Consequently, we must look to Georgia law to determine whether [Brinko] had a property interest in [her] job.
(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Id. at 331(1), 729 S.E.2d 469.
Under Georgia law, a public employee has a property interest in employment when that employee can be fired only for cause. In the absence of a contractual or statutory “for cause” requirement, however, the employee serves “at will” and may be discharged at any time for any reason or no reason, with no cause of action for wrongful termination under state law. Such “at[-]will” employees have no legitimate claim of entitlement to continued employment and, thus, have no property interest protected by the due process clause.
(Punctuation and footnote omitted.) Wilson v. City of Sardis, 264 Ga.App. 178, 179(1), 590 S.E.2d 383 (2003).
In this case, the undisputed evidence in the record shows that Brinko did not have a valid contract of employment with the city and that her employment was terminable at will. In fact, the city's Personnel Policy Manual specifically states, in relevant part, as follows:
The City of St. Marys is an at-will-employer pursuant to Georgia law. While it is the City's goal to provide employees and supervisors with beneficial programs, policies, and procedures, all of the City's programs, policies, and procedures are dependent on economic and political considerations and may be changed from time to time by the City at its discretion. Since the Manual is advisory in nature, it creates no contractual obligations on the part of employees, supervisors, or the City and does not alter the at-will relationship. Employees and supervisors are free to quit at any time and for any reason, and the City has the same right to end the employment relationship. Employees must read and sign the City of St. Marys Employee Handbook upon being hired, which makes them aware of the Employer-at-will relationship.
(Emphasis supplied.) This is an affirmative and unequivocal statement that an at-will employment relationship existed between Brinko and the city. See Doss v. City of Savannah, 290 Ga.App. 670, 673(1), 660 S.E.2d 457 (2008) (physical precedent only) (The city's Employee Handbook specifically stated that it did not “constitute an expressed or implied contract” and that a city employee “may separate from his/her employment at any time; the City of Savannah reserves the right to do the same.” Thus, the handbook provided that the plaintiff's employment was terminable at will.) (citation and punctuation omitted). Further, Brinko has failed to demonstrate that another policy in the city's personnel manual, any other official city document, or any ordinance or statute altered her status as an at-will employee and provided that she could only be fired for cause.4
It follows that, because Brinko's employment was terminable at will, she did not have a protected property interest in her continued employment that was subject to procedural due process. Wilson v. City of Sardis, 264 Ga.App. at 179(1), 590 S.E.2d 383; see DeClue v. City of Clayton, 246 Ga.App. 487, 489–491(1), 540 S.E.2d 675 (2000) (Because the employee did not have a property interest in his employment, the city did not violate his due process rights by terminating his employment without notice and a hearing.). Accordingly, the trial court erred in granting Brinko's motion for summary judgment5 and in denying the defendants' motion for summary judgment on her due process claim.
2. Given our decision in Division 1, supra, the defendants' remaining enumerated errors are moot.
Case No. A13A1457
3. Brinko contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants on her tort claims. We find that this contention lacks merit for the reasons and authority given in the trial court's order and the defendants' brief. Further, the record supports the court's order, and no reversible error of law appears. Finally, there is sufficient existing legal precedent that is adverse to Brinko's contentions, so an opinion in this case would have no precedential value. Accordingly, we affirm the court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants on Brinko's tort claims, pursuant to Court of Appeals Rule 36.
Judgment reversed in Case No. A13A1456. Judgment affirmed in Case No. A13A1457.
ELLINGTON, Presiding Judge.
PHIPPS, C. J., and BRANCH, J., concur.