The Impact of Local Government Law Explained by Paul Threlkeld
Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
Of the many considerations we make on a daily basis about government, the need for legal representation for local municipalities and counties may not immediately spring to mind. But Paul Threlkeld, partner at Oliver Maner LLP, specializes in just that.
“Local governments have so many moving parts and so many departments, related agencies, and authorities that they are constantly—and wisely—seeking legal advice,” Paul explains. While there are certain immunities that city and county governments and their employees and officials enjoy, it is still essential for Georgia cities and counties to defend themselves in legal disputes.
“The governmental body itself is entitled to ‘sovereign immunity’—a concept stemming from English common law meaning the ‘king (or sovereign) can do no wrong’,” Paul explains. “Today, in Georgia, a city or county government cannot be sued unless in waives its immunity or unless the Georgia General Assembly passes a statute allowing a city or county to be sued for certain types of claims.”
Local government officials who are sued also receive the protection of “official immunity.” “This often applies to law enforcement officials who find themselves sued as a result of an arrest or some other incident,” Paul clarifies. “Official immunity protects these individuals from state law claims unless it can be proven that they acted with actual malice—which means an actual intent to cause that specific harm to the plaintiff.” Ultimately, as Paul sees it, “these immunities exist because local governments provide services and protection to citizens. The public purse should not be put at risk to pay meritless claims.”
When local governments get sued, Paul and the team at Oliver Maner step up. “Fortunately for our clients, most claims against a city or county are defensible and end with most, if not all, claims being dismissed,” Paul says. But despite what his high success rate might imply, this line of work is particularly complex. “City and county governments have the burden of providing services to their citizens lawfully and efficiently with public money,” Paul elaborates. “It’s not always easy.” Indeed, what may seem like a straightforward issue or complaint by a citizen is often controlled by federal, state, or local laws that cannot be easily changed or ignored.
“There are not that many ‘simple’ problems in local government,” Paul explains. Fortunately, Oliver Maner LLP brings to the table more than a century’s worth of experience in just such matters. “Our lawyers represent city and county governments and their officials in every area of local government law,” Paul continues. “Two of our partners represent local municipalities as their city attorney providing counsel to these city councils on issues that include zoning, tax, transportation, law enforcement, real estate, risk assessment, public utilities, and government services.”
Oliver Maner’s expertise in government law doesn’t end there: “Firm lawyers also represent cities through their participation in Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency, which is a risk-sharing pool that many municipal governments participate in,” Paul says. ““We also represent Georgia county governments and their officials in lawsuits via their risk-sharing pool the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia – Interlocal Risk Management Agency.”
Beyond that, Paul works with city officials and law enforcement officers. “Police officers often get sued for false arrest, excessive force, or allegedly violating someone’s Constitutional rights during an arrest. We defend officers and their superiors and employers in all types of lawsuits in state and federal court.” Some of the more interesting cases that cross Paul’s desk are police pursuit cases that arise if a collision or other accident occurs while law enforcement are pursuing an offender.
“The people who serve on city councils and county commissions, or work for county EMS and police, and all local government employees are, by and large, honest, hard-working people who are invested in their communities and who try very hard to get the job done right,” Paul says. His faith in our local municipalities isn’t the only thing about his practice that’s refreshing—he’s also passionate about what he does. “I take great satisfaction in representing a city, county, sheriff, or police officer who has been sued because they were doing their job the best they could,” he explains. “Maybe something went wrong or someone made an incorrect decision, but that does not mean that someone acted maliciously or in bad-faith.” Through his work on these types of cases for more than a decade, Paul has seen it all.
His conscientious approach has led to victories in all areas of local government, ranging from representation of counties and cities to individuals. “Early in my career I worked on a case for Garden City against CSX Railroad that clarified how and when a city can waive its sovereign immunity,” Paul recollects. “The case lasted more than six years and wound its way through federal trial and state and federal appellate courts—but we ultimately prevailed.”
More recently, Paul represented two counties and a city government as plaintiffs against King America Fishing and its subsidiaries in a highly publicized case. “These cases were related to the pollution of the Ogeechee River from King America’s plant in Screven County,” Paul explains. “Many people only think of local governments as defendants in lawsuits, but local governments can be plaintiffs, too. Local governments usually own property and that property can be damaged by the negligent acts of others just like a private citizen’s land can be harmed.”
At the end of the day, Paul understands exactly what’s at stake in his daily work. “We handle lawsuits everyday but most people have never been involved in one, much less been sued. It’s not fun for those involved and takes a toll,” he acknowledges. But there’s one thing that makes it worth all of the years of hard work: “When you can help someone, such as a law enforcement officer, clear his or her conscience and obtain a court ruling or jury verdict in their favor, it’s a good feeling,” Paul says. Fortunately, it’s one he gets to enjoy often.