Filed Date: March 22, 2011
Closed Date: 2014
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On March 22, 2011, five indigent parents incarcerated because of child support debt brought this case in Georgia Superior Court. The plaintiffs sued the State of Georgia for violations of the Georgia State Constitution and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of their Sixth and Fourteenth amendment rights. The plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, sought declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the State to provide counsel when defendants faced the possibility of incarceration for child support debt and when the State was a party in the suit.
In their complaint, plaintiffs asserted that incarceration for child support debt is rampant in Georgia. For example, the plaintiffs alleged that in February 2009, almost one-third of the prisoners in the Adel County prison were there solely for child support debt. Incarcerating parents for child support debt is harmful to children and communities because the parent is unable to work while incarcerated, and often loses his or her job as a result. The complaint also alleged that most state efforts to recoup child support debt is focused on indigent communities.
In their original complaint, the plaintiffs asked for the certification of a class consisting of “all indigent parents in Georgia who are: (1) currently being incarcerated for nonpayment or underpayment of child support following a contempt proceeding at which they were not afforded the right to counsel; or (2) facing the imminent threat of future incarceration in Georgia, without counsel, for nonpayment or underpayment of court-ordered child support.” However, the defendants filed a Motion to Stay on April 27, 2011 pending the outcome of Turner v. Rogers, 131 S. Ct. 504 (2010) a similar case in the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue whether an indigent parent has a categorical right to counsel in a civil child support contempt hearing where the custodial parent seeking the contempt order represented herself and the State was not a party. The Supreme Court held there was no such categorical right.
On July 10, 2011, after the decision in Turner, the plaintiffs amended their proposed class to include only those indigent parents who face incarceration in contempt proceedings in which the state was represented by counsel. On December 30, 2011, the Superior Court allowed the case to proceed as a class action, finding that the class membership was sufficiently numerous, the injury was common to the members, and the named plaintiffs were typical of the class members. The class consisted of “all indigent parents who, without appointed counsel and without constitutionally mandated procedural protections to ensure fundamentally fair proceedings, face incarceration for nonpayment or underpayment of child support in child support contempt proceedings where the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) is represented by state-funded counsel.” (2011 WL 12516347).
On January 17, 2012, the defendants appealed the class certification. On March 20, 2013, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiffs failed to satisfy the typicality and commonality required to certify the class. Specifically, the appellate court found that because the named plaintiffs were not denied counsel (most simply did not request it), the injury was not typical of the class, and therefore it was likely that a single injury was not common to the class. Importantly, the Appeals Court asserted that due to the Georgia Supreme Court's decision in Adkins v. Adkins 248 S.E.2d 646 (Ga. 1978), courts have no duty to inquire as to whether a plaintiff needs counsel in civil cases. (739 S.E.2d 487).
On March 27, 2012, the plaintiffs appealed the ruling of the appeals court, and the Supreme Court of Georgia granted certioriari review.
On July 11, 2014, the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the holding of the Appeals Court, though it arrived at its holding by slightly different reasoning. Specifically, the Georgia Supreme Court said that the Appeals Court misinterpreted the Court’s reasoning in Adkins v. Adkins. That case, the Court asserted, was only addressing Sixth Amendment rights to counsel, and not a right to counsel derived from the Due Process clause. However, the Court still held that there is “no absolute, inflexible, and categorical right to appointed counsel in child support proceedings as a matter of due process, even when the Department, represented by its own lawyers, pursues the incarceration of an indigent parent.” Since the right asserted by the plaintiffs was determined not to be categorical, and therefore would not apply to the entire class or to all the named plaintiffs, the Court found that the class failed to meet the typicality and commonality requirement. (295 Ga. 504)
The case was remanded to the Georgia Superior court, and it was dismissed on November 24, 2014.
Megan Brown (6/4/2017)
Baxter, Jerry W (Georgia)
Geraghty, Sarah E. (Georgia)
Hollie, Atteeyah Eshe (Georgia)
Cicero, Mark J. (Georgia)
Dunn, Dennis R. (Georgia)
Baxter, Jerry W (Georgia)
Ray, William McCrary II (Georgia)
Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 2:26 p.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Georgia
Filing Date: March 22, 2011
Closing Date: 2014
Case Ongoing: No
Five indigent parents who were incarcerated because of child support debt; class certification of the class of such parents was initially granted but then denied.
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Denied
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Defendant
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief: