On August 5, 2022, Relman Colfax settled an important case challenging McIntosh County’s failure to provide equal services to the largest intact Gullah Geechee community in Georgia, on Sapelo Island. The firm filed suit in December of 2015 on behalf of the Plaintiffs, dozens of Black, Gullah Geechee descendants who live and own property in the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island. The suit was brought against McIntosh County and the State of Georgia alleging that they failed to provide adequate water, emergency medical, fire, road maintenance, trash, and accessible ferry services to members of the community.
The Plaintiffs settled with the State in 2020, providing for financial compensation and for changes to the ferry infrastructure to allow people with disabilities ready access to the ferry. Since that settlement, the State has made substantial improvements to the ferry, valued at over $10 million.
The case against the County was set to go to trial on July 25, 2022. Just prior to trial, the parties agreed to a groundbreaking settlement, providing for $2 million in damages and attorneys’ fees and ensuring a period of tax stability and substantially increased municipal services on Sapelo Island.
The settlement of this case—the first federal suit ever to challenge the government’s treatment of Gullah Geechee people—will have a significant impact on the community. The County will station emergency medical equipment and an emergency medical vehicle on Sapelo Island, ensure that the fire protection equipment is modern and functional, maintain the roads in the Hogg Hummock community, and reduce the trash fee Island residents must pay. The denial of municipal services has made it difficult in recent decades for people to live full time on the Island. The agreement ensures that Sapelo residents will enjoy public services and infrastructure similar to other McIntosh County communities, which is critical to the continued viability of the Gullah Geechee community. Moreover, under the settlement agreement, the County has agreed to keep taxes on the Island at their current levels for three years, protecting against a near-term, sudden tax increase that would drive people off the Island. The financial compensation under the settlements also provides a meaningful opportunity for building financial security in the Hogg Hummock community.
The road to settlement was long—in the seven years since the case was filed, Plaintiffs successfully defeated three motions to dismiss and two summary judgment motions, which led to the favorable resolution.
A copy of the settlement agreement is available here.
The Relman Colfax litigation team includes Reed Colfax, Rebecca Livengood, Lila Miller, and Zoila Hinson, with paralegal assistance from Charlotte Saltzman and Don Scales. Robert Jackson of Robert B. Jackson IV, LLC served as co-counsel on the case.