Category: Business Litigation

Langley: Important New Personal Injury Case

Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC, A18A0193 (May 1, 2018), just issued by the Georgia Court of Appeals, may have a big impact on many future Georgia personal injury cases. Langley involves a residential landlord-tenant relationship in which a tenant sued her landlord for injuries more than a year after the injuries occurred. Normally, in Georgia, an injured party has two years to file a personal injury lawsuit. However, in this case, the landlord moved to dismiss the case because the lease provided only one year to sue the landlord.  This is the exact language in the lease:

Limitation on Actions. To the extent allowed by law, Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against Management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.

Focusing on the word any, the Court of Appeals ruled that any legal action included not only breach of contract claims but also personal injury claims. Thus, the lease trumped Georgia’s statute of limitations. The Court reasoned that parties should be free to enter into contracts without interference from the courts.

At Gomez & Golomb, we practice personal injury and real estate litigation. Thus, for us, Langley cuts both ways. It’s bad for our personal injury clients, but good for our real estate and corporate clients. From now on, in personal injury cases, we will be looking even more closely at applicable contracts for language that may limit injury claims. For our real estate and corporate clients, we will be advising them that Langley opens the door to include terms in their contracts that limit liability.

Bankruptcy: repeat filings

A question we get frequently, especially after a debtor files a second or third bankruptcy as a delay strategy, is just how many times can a debtor get away with filing for bankruptcy? We refer to these folks, not so affectionately, as “serial filers.” While not perfect, there are some restrictions for debtors filing multiple bankruptcies:

180 days: A debtor can’t file a second bankruptcy case for 180 days if the debtor’s case was dismissed (i.e., the bankruptcy wasn’t completed) for the following reasons: (1) by the court for willful failure of the debtor to abide by orders of the court, or to appear before the court in proper prosecution of the case; or (2) the debtor requested and obtained the voluntary dismissal of the case following the filing of a request for relief from the automatic stay.

Two bankruptcies in one year: When a debtor files a second bankruptcy within one year of the dismissal of the first case, the automatic stay expires 30 days after filing (11 U.S.C. § 362(c)(3)). There’s one exception, which is if the debtor can prove to the court that the second case was filed in good faith (meaning the debtor didn’t file repeatedly to delay collection by a creditor), the court has discretion to extend the automatic stay.

Three bankruptcies in one year: When a debtor files a third bankruptcy within one year of the dismissal of the first case, the automatic stay doesn’t take effect at all upon the third filing (11 U.S.C. § 362(c)(4)).

After successful completion of a bankruptcy (i.e., a discharge): For a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a debtor is not eligible for a discharge if the debtor received a discharge in another Chapter 7 filed within the prior eight years, or in a Chapter 13 case filed in the prior six years (unless the prior Chapter 13 payment plan either paid 100% of the unsecured claims or paid 70% of the unsecured claims). For a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a debtor is not eligible for a discharge if the debtor received a discharge in another Chapter 13 case filed in the prior two years, or in a Chapter 7 case filed in the prior four years.

Miscellaneous note: The one-year period for either termination or non-application of the stay begins to run from the date of dismissal of the first case. In a joint case, if only one of the debtors had a prior case dismissed in the year before filing, the automatic stay is affected only as to the debtor with the prior case. Section 362(c) (3) and (4) apply to the acts of a specific debtor rather than joint debtors in the aggregate.

Please call us if you need clarification or have any questions.

Attorney’s Fees in Georgia: Part One

Part 1: Contractual Attorney’s Fees

Virtually without fail, one of the first things our clients ask is whether they’ll be able to recover attorney’s fees from the other side. This is a fair question because it seems wrong to have pay an attorney when the other side has acted improperly or has caused the dispute. While not necessarily intuitive, the default rule, with exceptions, is that each side is responsible for their own attorney’s fees. We’re going to discuss some of the statutes and cases contrary to the default rule–these laws allow the winner of a lawsuit to recover reasonable attorney’s fees.

The most clear cut situation in which the winning party can recover attorney’s fees is when parties have signed a contract that provides for the recovery of  attorney’s fees. For example, a typical provision in a contract might say that “the prevailing party is entitled to attorney’s fees incurred to enforce or collect monies due under the contract.” In these situations, a trial court doesn’t have the authority to alter such an arrangement unless it is prohibited by statute, and the winning party is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees as a matter of law.

Contractual attorney’s fees were discussed by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Summit At Scarborough Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Williams, A17A1289 (decided November, 16, 2017). In that case, the trial court’s decision to deny a homeowner’s association attorney’s fees related to unpaid association dues was reversed because the association documents, which are considered a contract, provided for the collection of attorney’s fees. Thus, in cases where a contract provides for attorney’s fees, the trial court must award attorney’s fees based upon evidence of the reasonable value of the professional services provided by the attorney.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss what happens when there’s no contractual provision for attorney’s fees, but the opposing party has acted in bad faith.

Serving a Lawsuit in Georgia: Understanding the Sheriff’s Entry of Service Form

In Georgia, with some exceptions, the opposing party a/k/a the defendant must be “personally” served before a lawsuit can go forward. This means the lawsuit must be physically handed to the defendant. If the defendant is a corporation, service is made on the corporation’s registered agent. (Every corporation in Georgia is required to appoint a registered agent—this information can be found on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website.)

Service usually begins by providing the sheriff a copy of the complaint, summons, and sheriff’s entry of service form. Service by the sheriff typically takes two to three weeks, during which time a sheriff’s deputy will complete the form and mail it back to the filing party. What does this form mean? Below is the relevant part of the form and how we address the various types of service in our office:

If the “personal” box is completed (box # 1 above), almost always, the sheriff has handed the paperwork to the opposing party and service is complete. Now we can get to work on the case.

If the “notorious” box is checked (box # 2 above)  this means the sheriff has handed the paperwork to someone over 18 years old who lives the opposing party. Georgia law allows notorious service, but, in our experience, we should be cautious in these situations because notorious service is sometimes unreliable and can challenged. Fortunately, an answer is due from the opposing party 30 days after service. If service isn’t contested in the answer, we no longer need to worry about service. If service is contested in the answer and seems reasonable, we will discuss with you the merits of repeating service. Ultimately, getting proper service is important because if we don’t have proper service, any judgment we obtain might be overturned.

The “corporation” box  (box # 3 above) obviously applies to serving a corporation. If this is checked, generally, this ends up being successful service.

If the “better address” box is checked (box # 5 above)  this means the person living at the address provided has told the sheriff that opposing party has moved.

Finally, the dreaded “non-est” box  box # 5 above): this means the sheriff has gone to the address provided but was unable to serve the defendant. Most importantly, this means the lawsuit can’t continue. At this point, we need to determine if we have a good address for the opposing party. A defendant can be served at home, work, church, etc. If we are confident we have a good address despite the sheriff being unsuccessful, we recommend hiring a private process server. Unlike the sheriff, a private process server will work with us and has a much better chance of successfully serving the defendant. The cost for a private process server is about $100, but goes up depending on difficulty. If we aren’t confident that we have a good address, we recommend hiring an investigator to find a good address for the defendant. This is more expensive and will cost $250 and upwards.

If we still can’t find the defendant or believe the defendant is avoiding service, we’re entitled to ask the court to allow us to serve the opposing party by publication. We’ll address service by publication in a separate blog.

We hope this gives you a better idea regarding service of a lawsuit in Georgia. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call us at 404-382-9994.