2020 State Bar Legislative Update: Days 29-40

2020 Legislative Update | Days 29-40

The Georgia General Assembly concluded its 40-day legislative session on Friday, June 26. The session was a bizarre one marked by a 12-week hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Legislature convened again on June 15 for the final 11 days of the session, its priorities significantly shifted to address a new set of issues facing our state. Legislators grappled budget cuts resulting from a significant revenue shortfall during the pandemic, new legal challenges in the wake of the current COVID-19 crisis, and a societal reckoning on racism and police brutality following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and others.

On June 23, the Legislature passed a historic hate crimes bill, HB 426 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , a multi-year, bipartisan effort sponsored by Georgia attorney Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula) and 45-year House veteran Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus). The bill creates a sentencing enhancement for anyone found guilty of intentionally targeting a victim because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. A person found guilty under the hate crimes statute would face an additional sentence of six months to a year and a fine of up to $5,000 for one of five misdemeanor offenses and a minimum of two additional years for a felony offense. Gov. Kemp signed HB 426 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] into law on Friday, June 26, and the bill will take effect on July 1.

After news that state revenues had declined by $1 billion in April, legislators were prepared to return to Atlanta and cut state spending by 14 percent in order to meet Georgia’s constitutional balanced budget requirement ahead of a new fiscal year on July 1. Ultimately appropriators were required to make difficult reductions to the state’s operational expenses in order to make ends meet, but spared state employees from taking unpaid furlough days. We are grateful to the General Assembly for considering the obligations of the judiciary as courts statewide begin to reopen and for recognizing the toll that furloughs and layoffs would take on attorneys and judges across our state.

What Passed and What Didn’t

The State Bar monitors a variety of bills affecting the profession and the practice of law. Below is a non-exhaustive list of bills that successfully passed the Legislature during the 2020 session.

HB 230 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), creates a new type of corporate entity called a “Benefit Corporation” under Georgia law. A benefit corporation allows for a particular public cause to be a charter purpose of the corporation in addition to the traditional corporate goal of maximizing profit for shareholders. Similar legislation has been enacted in 36 other states. HB 230 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed in the House in 2019. The bill passed the Senate on June 25 and will head to the governor’s desk for signature.

HB 786 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Andy Welch (R-McDonough), will create a new superior court judgeship in the Flint, Ogeechee and Cobb circuits. The term for each new judgeship shall begin on Jan. 1, 2022.

HB 838 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon), arose after a debate on HB 426 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , the hate crimes bill. The legislation creates a civil cause of action for abridging a peace officer’s civil rights during the officer’s performance of official duties, or for knowingly filing a false complaint against an officer. The bill also creates a criminal charge for “bias motivated intimidation” of a first responder. HB 838 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed along party lines on June 23 and will head to the governor’s desk for signature.

HB 865 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Mitchell Scoggins (R-Cartersville), is part of the State Bar’s legislative package and revises Title 53 of the Georgia Code dealing with wills, trusts and administration of estates. HB 865 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed in the Senate on March 12 and received a final “agree” vote in the House on June 25. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk.

HB 987 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), creates the “Disabled Adults and Elder Persons Protection Act,” that, among other things, provides certain staffing and training requirements for personal care homes with 25 or more residents following a series of investigative reports on alleged neglect in Georgia nursing home facilities. HB 987 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] received final passage in the House on June 24 and is headed to the governor’s desk.

HR 1023 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Andy Welch (R-McDonough), is a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would allow any person who suffers an injury in fact to petition the courts for declaratory relief from acts of municipalities or officers or employees thereof done outside the scope of lawful authority or in violation of the laws of the state or the Constitution of the United States. The amendment would not allow actions filed that name individuals, officers or entities other than as expressly authorized in the amendment. HR 1023 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed unanimously in the Senate on June 15 and received a final “agree” vote in the House on June 16. If the governor signs HR 1023 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , it will appear on the November 2020 ballot as a constitutional amendment.

SB 288 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. Tonya Anderson (D-Lithonia), is a conditional records restriction bill that allows individuals charged or convicted of certain non-violent misdemeanors to petition for the offense to be restricted to the public if the individual has not committed another offense in the previous four years. More than 40 states have similar laws that are intended to prevent the preclusion of misdemeanor offenders from employment and housing opportunities. SB 288 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] received final passage on June 24.

SB 315 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta), is intended to address a recent Court of Appeals of Georgia ruling in Landmark v. ALA Construction II that extinguished all rights, including contract rights, for failure to file an Affidavit of Non-Payment. SB 315 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] received a final vote on June 19 and will head to the governor’s desk for signature.

SB 359 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (R-Rome), also known as the “Georgia COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act,” seeks to protect hospitals and providers from legal liability arising from COVID-19 unless a plaintiff can prove gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm. Additionally, the bill creates a rebuttable presumption that the claimant assumes the risk when he or she enters certain premises that provide express warning disclaimers, except in cases of gross negligence. SB 359 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed on June 27, where both the House and Senate voted on party lines. With Gov. Kemp’s approval of the bill, these legal protections would sunset on July 14, 2021.

SB 373 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon), amends the business judgment rule as it related to nonprofit corporations so that the actions and decisions of a director are presumed to be in good faith and exercised using ordinary care. That presumption may be rebutted by evidence of gross negligence. SB 373 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] received a final vote in the House on June 26 and will head to the governor’s office for signature.

The following legislation made it through the Crossover Day deadline on March 12, but failed to pass in both chambers by the conclusion of the 40-day session.

SB 344 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga), would have permitted a prisoner in a state or county correctional facility to appear for specified court proceedings via video conference. SB 344 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed in the Senate prior to the Legislature’s hiatus due to COVID-19, but failed to pass on the House floor when the bill came up for a vote on June 24.

SB 374 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon), amends O.C.G.A. 9-11-67.1, which addresses settlement demands and personal injury actions. The bill would apply the statutory settlement demand criteria to all personal injury actions, not just those arising from motor vehicles. SB 374 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed in the Senate on March 2 but did not receive a committee hearing in the House during the final two weeks of the legislative session.

SB 464 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon), creates the Georgia Uniform Mediation Act, which would apply many of the same protections and rules that administer court-ordered mediation to private mediations. SB 464 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed in the Senate on March 12 (Crossover Day), but failed to get out of the House Judiciary Committee before the conclusion of the legislative session.

HB 968 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] , sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula). In the wake of an October 2019 Court of Appeals of Georgia decision called Southern States Chemical v. Tampa Tank , this legislation sought to clarify O.C.G.A. 9-3-51 so that the eight-year statute of repose does not apply to actions for breach of express contractual warranties. HB 968 [ www.legis.ga.gov ] passed the House by a vote of 165-0 on March 2 but did not receive a committee hearing in the Senate.

We appreciate all of our Bar members who have reached out to us with their comments throughout the session. If you have questions about the legislative session or any of the bills we’ve mentioned, please email Christine Butcher Hayes, director of governmental affairs, at christineh@gabar.org [ mailto:christineh@gabar.org ] .

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