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Georgia Supreme Court Caseload Increases While Court of Appeals Caseload Decreases Despite Changes in the Law

In 2016, Georgia legislators expanded the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. In doing so, the new legislation shifted a large amount of cases from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals. Nonetheless, neither court’s caseload has changed, and the reason for this lack of difference is complicated, according to the Daily Report.

Changes in Georgia Law

Nearly three years ago, legislation was signed into law in Georgia adding two new justices to its Supreme Court  and three new judges to the Court of Appeals. The law also moved a sizable amount of the Georgia Supreme Court’s  caseload to the Georgia Court of Appeals. Ironically, while the number of Supreme Court opinions issued was reduced slightly, the court’s actual caseload increased. Moreover, despite the expansion in the Court of Appeals to handle cases shifted from the high court, such as property title, alimony, wills, divorce, equity and some extraordinary remedy cases, the lower court saw a slight reduction in caseload.

The reasons behind this lack of change despite new legislation is complicated. The Daily Report notes that representatives from each court list several factors including the availability of court resources, the types of cases counted, and statutory deadlines governing how fast an appeal must be decided.

By the Numbers

According to figures provided to the Daily Report, the Georgia Supreme Court justices heard 151 oral arguments in 2017, while they heard 109 in 2018. The number of direct appeals to the high court dropped to 426 in 2018 as compared to 539 in 2017. Petitions for certiorari, however, increased to 523 in 2018 as compared to 466 in 2017. According to the court’s chief information officer, the 2016 Georgia legislation shifted about 25% of the cases under the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to the Court of Appeals. The Georgia Court of Appeals, on the other hand, reported handling 2,187 direct appeals in 2018. This number was just one less than 2017. The number of cases had been decreasing steadily since its peak in 2013 of 2,569 cases.

Jurisdiction of Courts

The Georgia Supreme Court is the highest court in the state and its decisions are typically the last word on a case unless petitioned for appeal to the United States Supreme Court if they involve an issue relating to federal constitutional law. The Georgia Supreme Court reviews decisions made by the lower court in both civil and criminal matters. The Court addresses questions involving criminal cases in which the death sentence was, or could have been, imposed; the constitutionality of state laws; petitions of decisions from the Court of Appeals; and election contests.

The Georgia Court of Appeals, on the other hand, is the intermediate appellate court in the state. Established in 1906, the court has 15 judges who serve in its five divisions. The Court has jurisdiction statewide in all cases except for those that involve murder, constitutional questions, and habeas corpus, when original appellate jurisdiction falls with the Supreme Court. Additionally, the Court of Appeals may certify legal questions to the Supreme Court for decision.

Social Media can Affect Civil Litigation in Georgia

It is no surprise to litigators in Georgia and across the country that unguarded messages are often sent by people that later come back to damage their cases. For this reason, discovery of these damaging messages are a top priority in civil lawsuits. Of note, people tend to post intimate information on their social media pages. For this reason, social media has become a particular target in civil litigation and lawyers can try to go after those of opposing parties and witnesses in two ways — through formal discovery procedures or self help.

Seeking Social Media Content Through Formal Discovery

Courts across the country have held that social media providers (think FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, among others) are barred under the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) from responding to civil subpoenas requesting social media content. That being said, some courts have ordered the opposing party to consent to the social media company’s disclosure agreement and have a consensual request sent to the provider. Without this workaround, social media content is only discoverable from the individuals who posted or received the information.

Notably, restricted social media content is neither private nor privileged in a legal sense, and those who delete or destroy accounts during litigation to avoid discovery have faced sanctions for spoliation of evidence. That being said, courts are hesitant to allow broad requests through all of a person’s private social  media content. Generally, discovery of social media content is allowed when the content directly sheds light on the disputed facts in the underlying lawsuit; if needed, the discovery can be subject to a protective order.

Using Self-Help to Access Social Media Content

It is true that there is no specific ethical rule that prohibits lawyers from looking online at publicly available social media content of opposing parties or witnesses. That being said, seeking private social media content that has been restricted to a limited audience can result in issues. An attorney can ask a friend of the opposing party or witness — meaning, someone who has been granted online access to the private content — to voluntarily share the information. This can not be done through misrepresentation, trickery, or any other unethical methods, though. Attorneys should not ask staff to engage in any activity that would be prohibited if the attorney were conducting it him or herself. Indeed, unauthorized access to private social media content may result in a claim under federal law — specifically, the SCA or Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (CFAA) or applicable state law.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals Reconsiders Prior Wage Dispute Decision

Alabama’s Minimum Wage Law Dispute

At the beginning of this year, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals withdrew a July decision  regarding a lawsuit alleging that Alabama’s 2016 minimum-wage law is racially discriminatory. The lawsuit was filed by civil rights groups, minority legislators, and fast-food workers. According to a Times Daily News report, the court plans to hold a rehearing on the matter.

The Alabama law in question blocked cities from raising the minimum wage after Birmingham tried to raise the base to $10 per hour. Alabama’s law mandates a uniform minimum wage across the state. Critics of the state law claim that it is just the latest example of a majority-white legislature exerting its control over majority-black cities.Those who support the state law point to concerns about the wage hike’s impact on businesses and argue a uniform minimum wage is critical for economic development.

In 2017, a U.S. district judge dismissed the lawsuit holding that the plaintiffs had not proven the claims of discrimination and civil rights violations. The appeals court, however, found that the plaintiffs stated a plausible claim that the act had the purpose and effect of discriminating against Birmingham’s black citizens on the basis of race.

Minimum Wage Hikes Across the Nation

 Legislative efforts, as well as adjustments for inflation and ballot measures across the nation are giving workers in U.S. states an increase in the minimum wage in 2019. According to a U.S. News Report, he increases range from $0.05 to $2.00 and is due to impact 5.2 million workers. A recent Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report predicts that the minimum wage increase will raise the annual salaries of year-round workers by $90 to $1,3000. 24 cities and counties across the country will also raise their minimum wages at the start of 2019.

While the federal minimum wage has stayed stagnant at $7.25 per hour for the past decade, movements have spread across the country to increase this number at both the state and local levels. The country’s federal minimum wage standards are found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Although many states have their own minimum wage laws, when an employee is subject to both state and federal laws, the worker is entitled to the higher of the two established minimum wages.

New Georgia Laws in Effect in 2019

Several new laws have gone into effect this year in Georgia. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some grant more rights to victims of crime, others expand insurance coverage to include autism services, and still others impose sales taxes on internet purchases. The laws received approval from the Georgia Assembly last spring and were later signed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Below are details on some of the new laws that are on the books in Georgia this year.

Newly Effective Laws

Marsy’s Law: An amendment to Georgia’s Constitution, this law was approved by 81% of the voters in the November general election. Marsy’s Law requires crime victims to receive notification prior to hearings in cases involving defendants who have been accused of harming them. While state laws already impose this requirement, these rights are now embedded in the state constitution.

Marsy’s Law is named after the late Marsy Nicholas, a college student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in the early 1980s. One week after her murder, the ex-boyfriend, who was released on bail and Marsy’s family was unaware, confronted her mother and brother in a grocery store.

Sales Tax: As of 2019, many online retailers will begin to charge sales tax on purchases made by Georgia customers. Despite large companies like Amazon already having charged sales tax for years, many other online businesses have not. Now, a Georgia buyer will have to pay the state’s 4% tax along with local taxes – whether they buy at a brick-and-mortar or on the internet. Last June, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that Georgia and other states can collect sales tax for purchases made online; the ruling overturned a 25-year-old decision that prevented state governments from enforcing sales tax unless the company had a physical, brick-and-mortar presence in that state.

Insurance Coverage: A third law increases coverage for autism-related services beyond the age of 6. Now, state law mandates insurance companies provide up to $35,000 of behavioral therapy coverage per year for children up to the age of 20. Prior law limited coverage to $30,000.

Other important changes in Georgia’s laws that go into effect in 2019 include a sales tax exemption on equipment for data centers, allowing Georgia-licensed pharmacists to order prescription drugs for patients from anywhere in the U.S., and a voter-approved tax cut for timberland owners.

Stay in the Know

The law is constantly evolving, and Georgia state law is no exception to this rule. Be sure to stay up to date with changes in the law as well as any cases that may create more nuanced interpretations of laws already on the books.