Davis Lackey

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The State of Georgia has long recognized the importance of providing emergency services for its citizens. The on-call availability of medical services in our communities is a vital resource for those in need. The Georgia Legislature enacted the Emergency Telephone Number “911” Service Act of 1977 (9-1-1 Act or Act), which streamlined the emergency services phone number into a single, three-digit emergency number that would effectively reduce response time. Specifically, the Georgia General Assembly was concerned with the existence of too many phone numbers for emergency services throughout the state. In 2005, the Georgia General Assembly amended the Act that generated a comprehensive plan that funds counties’ and local governments’ emergency services. The new, uniform, state–wide system placed a duty on service providers to bill, collect, and remit funds to local municipalities in order to provide reliable emergency services to Georgia citizens. Essentially, the service providers would charge one’s account on a monthly basis under the statute. Upon collection of the funds, the service providers would remit the money to the local governments to offset their costs of providing emergency services. Until recently, there has been no litigation concerning the Act.

In 2010, The Georgia Court of Appeals in Fulton County v. T-Mobile South, LLC first addressed the 9-1-1 charge under the Act. The court wrangled in Georgia case law as well as other persuasive authority to precisely attack the issue. Dissecting the main factors discussed in the case, the court ultimately concluded that the charge under the Act was a tax. The T-Mobile opinion is a raw depiction of the court scuffling with the case of first impression. As a result, the T-Mobile decision built a platform for other courts, including the Georgia Supreme Court, to stand on when faced with the challenging issues of taxation and statutory schemes.

On February 18, 2019, Bellsouth Telecommunications, LLC v. Cobb County was decided by the Georgia Supreme Court. The court reversed the court of appeals and the trial court, holding that the charge under the act is a tax and that Gwinnett and Cobb Counties (the Counties) did not have a right of action against the service providers. Because the charge was ruled a tax, the Counties were barred from pursuing any common law remedies for negligence, fraud, or breach of fiduciary duty. Interestingly, the Georgia Supreme Court relied on many of the cases cited in the T-Mobile decision, continuing to construct a stronger framework regarding the taxation issue under the Act.