Court clears ruling against Brookhaven officials

A DeKalb County judge has tossed a verdict that ordered Mayor John Ernst and City Manager Christian Sigman to pay fines after a development deal soured
Brookhaven City Hall

Credit: City of Brookhaven

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Brookhaven City Hall

Credit: City of Brookhaven

A DeKalb County judge has thrown out an unprecedented jury ruling against top Brookhaven officials who were personally fined for their roles in a real estate dispute.

A Georgia appeals court had previously reversed the jury’s ruling against the city itself. The latest decision clears the verdict against Mayor John Ernst and City Manager Christian Sigman, who each were ordered by the jury to pay $200,000 in punitive damages on top of the $6 million owed by the city.

In a Sept. 22 order, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie took issue with how the case was presented to the jury, saying it might have unfairly prejudiced their ultimate decision that found Brookhaven and city officials responsible for the failure of a proposed 226-unit townhome development along Buford Highway.

The jury’s verdict was thought to be one of the largest rulings of its kind in state history, and it was unusual in holding city leaders responsible on an individual basis for their roles in the real estate projects that come before local governments.

Ernst has said previously the ruling would have a chilling effect on how local officials handle such issues and would be ruinous to him personally. In a statement Thursday, he described the reversal as a vindication.

“It has been a long, arduous ordeal, not only for me but for my whole family. They should never have been subjected to this pejorative verdict and judgment,” Ernst said. “I make no apologies that I refused to compromise the City or its residents to the whims of an overzealous and unscrupulous developer.”

Sigman also expressed relief.

“As I’ve always said, we were never doing anything other than what we are supposed to be doing, which is protecting the interests and assets of the taxpayers,” he said in a statement.

Attorneys for the developers, Atlanta-based The Ardent Companies, and residents John and Courtney Wheeler, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ardent and the Wheelers sued the city and its leaders in 2018, accusing them of intentionally derailing their efforts to build the townhome development.

The developers had plans to buy property owned by the Wheelers and more than 20 other homeowners, then get city approval to rezone the land for apartments and townhomes. Ardent also sought to buy Bramblewood Drive, a dead-end neighborhood road, as part of the development. The city refused to sell for less than $3 million, a price Ardent said amounted to extortion. When the company had the road appraised, it was valued at $250,000.

Brookhaven then denied the rezoning request and withdrew tax incentives it was offering Ardent. At the time, the city said the two sides couldn’t agree on the amount of affordable housing units to include in the project in exchange for the property tax breaks.

The lawsuit was filed shortly after.

The appeals court decision dropped the city from the case but Barrie’s ruling allows the case against city officials to be retried. Her ruling found the jury might have been prejudiced by information presented during trial about past real estate negotiations involving Ernst and Sigman. If the case is to be retried, that information is to be limited.

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