UPDATE 2/16 4:16 p.m.: ADDS Franklin answer filed 3:56 p.m. 2/15
District 1 Commissioner Dr. Alieka Anderson is asking a Clayton County State Court judge to either dismiss a slander case brought against her or put the matter before a jury.
According to papers filed in Clayton County State Court on February 13, Anderson denies that she slandered Brandon Turner, a Parks and Recreation groundskeeper, and argues that she is protected by sovereign immunity because she was doing her job:
“Plaintiff [Turner] alleged that the alleged false statements by Anderson were made in connection with him being hired by the Clayton County government, over which the Board oversees. Anderson testified that any statements she would have made regarding the Plaintiff arose out of her duties as a County Commissioner.”
Turner is suing Anderson and District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin in separate cases. Both stem from a series of mass-forwarded e-mails that Franklin sent to local journalists, county elected and appointed officials, and others. The original e-mail was sent from someone calling themselves Michell Williams. However, The Clayton Crescent has not been able to verify the sender’s identity. That person falsely alleged that Turner was a convicted felon, a claim that Franklin spread via e-mail.
In 2018, the county ran a background check on Turner and, according to Ambles, the HR team that reviewed his file found “no issues identified with Mr. Turner’s employment documents.”
Franklin, who faces a similar slander suit brought by Turner, filed a response to Turner’s complaint February 15. According to that document, Franklin raised a number of defenses. In particular, “First offender pleas are considered guilty pleas to the underlying charge and the Court of Appeals has ruled that first offender status constitutes an admission of committing the underlying criminal offense,” citing a 2016 Georgia appellate case called Trustguard Insurance Company v. Herndon.
The answer includes pages from Turner’s case files, which are stamped, “Discharge filed completely exonerates the defendant of any criminal purpose and shall not affect any of his or her civil rights or liberties, except for registration requirements under the state sexual offender registry and except with regard to employment as specified in Code Section 42-8-63.1; and the defendant shall not be considered to have a criminal conviction. O.C.G.A. 42-8-60.”
Both Franklin and Anderson publicly upbraided Human Resources Director Pamela Ambles in the e-mail chain over Turner’s hiring and background check. Ambles replied that HR had to follow certain procedures and laws. Anderson at one point ordered Ambles to follow Franklin’s directives.
In her answer to Turner’s claim, Anderson argues that his complaint “is barred in whole or part due to the doctrines of sovereign immunity, governmental immunity, qualified immunity, and/or official immunity.”
Anderson’s answer notes a 1993 Georgia Court of Appeals ruling that that public officials “are immune from individual liability for discretionary acts undertaken in the course of their duties and without willfulness, malice, or corruption.”
Whether an official is immune depends on each individual case, it notes, and on whether the official was performing “ministerial” duties—”that is, required specifically by law, or ‘discretionary’; that is, requiring the exercise of judgment or choice on the part of the official.'”
Anderson argues that Turner “has provided no allegation that Anderson had any actual malice towards him and his claims…are barred by official immunity,” and that Turner’s “(c)omplaint attempts to chill Anderson’s constitutional right to free speech as a duly elected Commissioner on the Clayton County Board of Commissioners….Dr. Anderson testified that any alleged statement would have been made in the course of the operate [sic] of the county commission on which she is an elected member.”
No copy of Anderson’s affidavit, noted as Exhibit A in her motion to dismiss/motion to strike was available in the computerized case record in the Clerk of State Court’s Office as of press time.
What did Anderson say?
After Ambles provided a detailed response to Franklin’s questions, explaining that HR had to follow “EEO laws, Civil Service rules and best practices” regarding employee background checks, Anderson mass-e-mailed, “Good Day Ms. Ambles, Ms. Ambles answer the questions posed by Commissioner Franklin today 07/21/2022 by the close of business as instructed. Thanks, Commissioner Anderson.”
Although the e-mail did not mention Turner by name, it was in the context of Franklin’s mass-forwarded public e-mails, which stemmed from a false allegation that Turner was a convicted felon.
The Board of Commissioners’ Code of Conduct specifically states that each member of the board agrees to “(h)onor the chain of command and refer problems or complaints consistent with the chain of command” and “not undermine the authority of the department heads or intrude into responsibilities that properly belong to department heads, including such functions as hiring, transferring or dismissing employees.”
What is slander?
Slander, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is “a defamatory assertion expressed in a transitory form, especially speech, especially false and defamatory words that are said in reference to another, such as those charging criminal conduct, imputing a horrible or loathsome disease, alleging malfeasance or incompetence in reference to the person’s professional responsibilities, or otherwise causing special damage to the person’s reputati0n.”
What is malice?
Black’s contains several detailed categories of “malice,” but the main definition is “The intent, without justification or excuse, to commit a wrongful act,” or “Reckless disregard of the law or of a person’s legal rights.”
Some of those categories include:
- “Actual malice” means, in terms of defamation, “knowledge (by the person who utters or publishes a defamatory statement) that a statement is false, or reckless disregard about whether the statement is true.”
- “Express malice” as applied to defamation, is defined as “the bad-faith publication of defamatory material.”
- “General malice” is “malice that is necessary for any criminal conduct; malice that is not directed at a specific person.”
- “Implied malice” is “malice inferred from a person’s conduct.”
However, there’s a lot more to any lawsuit than just a dictionary definition or even state law. Whether Anderson’s e-mail—which does not mention Turner by name—would qualify as slander or was done with malice is up to the courts to determine.
The civil case number is 2022CV02325 and is before Judge Tammi Hayward.
True or false
The Clayton Crescent pulled Turner’s court file in Henry County, which involved misdemeanor charges that had been exonerated by a judge under the First Offender Act; that means Turner is, by law, not convicted of those charges.
Similar allegations had been made about District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis during his reelection campaign. The Clayton Crescent pulled those court files in Gwinnett County and discovered that Davis also had been exonerated in 2016 but that some of his paperwork on file did not have the required stamp from a judge when we saw it.
Anderson also faces federal suit
Anderson, along with Franklin and District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick, are named defendants in a federal suit filed by former Chief Financial Officer Ramona Bivins.
In that case, Bivins alleges Anderson told Chief Operating Officer he did not have to repay his graduate school tuition because “we are only going after Ramona” and that she and Franklin allegedly “expressed glee at Ms. Bivins’ termination and purportedly voided Agreement. Franklin said to Anderson, ‘I can sleep good tonight.’ In response, Anderson said, ‘Do I need to get us a bottle?'”
Hambrick’s attorneys have attempted to distance her from allegations that the three voted to terminate Bivins’ current contract and not to renew it because of Bivins’ husband’s support for Davis in the District 4 election.
Part of the process
At the February 7 BOC meeting, Anderson and Franklin complained about process servers coming to their homes.
Anderson said she would “feel more comfortable” as a single woman if she were served at BOC headquarters instead of her home. State law allows process servers great latitude to track down a defendant on behalf of the court. It also allows for defendants to designate someone in particular, like an attorney, to accept service for them.
Franklin commented, “I’ma go ahead and deal with the elephant in the room. It’s not just the fact that about how to be served. There’s nothing within state law that states that any member of this board should be followed, to their home, after nine o’clock, almost ten o’clock at night, to be served a particular document that specifically with the last name ‘Turner’ on it.”
Franklin was referring to the slander suit filed against her by Brandon Turner, who shares a last name with BOC Chairman Jeff Turner.
Banning the box
The National Employment Law Project notes, “Nationwide, 37 states and over 150 cities and counties have adopted what is widely known as ‘ban the box’ so that employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first—without the stigma of a conviction or arrest record.”
In 2015, Georgia became “the first state in the Deep South to adopt a fair hiring policy,” when then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order banning questions about a person’s criminal history from state job applications. NELP credits “a broad coalition of advocacy groups, including Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment, the Georgia Justice Project, 9 to 5 Atlanta, and various faith-based organizations” with backing Deal’s executive order.
The purpose of “Ban the Box” is to remove barriers to employment for people who have criminal convictions but who have been rehabilitated. Rather than checking a box admitting to a past conviction, the policy allows people to explain their situation in person with hiring managers and to explain any possible errors in their record. If the person is otherwise qualified and if their conviction has nothing to do with their job duties (for example, someone with a bank fraud conviction who would not be handling money), then that person can be hired.
Other public entities with similar laws or policies in place include Fulton, Macon-Bibb, and Cherokee Counties, as well as the cities of Atlanta, South Fulton, Savannah, Augusta, Albany, and Columbus.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers six tips for using criminal records in hiring decisions:
- Don’t ask about criminal records on the application.
- Conduct an individualized assessment.
- Consider only convictions and pending prosecutions.
- Consider only convictions that are relevant to the job in question.
- Consider only convictions recent enough to create a risk.
- Give the applicant an opportunity to review the record.