Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Petitioner Robin Herndon was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting and killing her live-in boyfriend, Christopher Rowley, allegedly, in self defense. Petitioner was tried for murder; the case against Petitioner was largely circumstantial. Petitioner requested the Logan circumstantial evidence charge, but the trial court refused, opting instead for the pre-Logan circumstantial evidence charge. On appeal, there was no contention that the trial court properly refused to give a "Logan" charge. Instead, the State contended the court's failure to give the Logan charge was a harmless error, for the jury instructions as a whole were substantially correct. The court of appeals summarily accepted the State's argument and affirmed. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that while there may be cases in which a trial court's failure to five the Logan charge is indeed harmless, "this is not such a case." The State's case against Petitioner was almost exclusively circumstantial. The State relied on: (1) eyewitness testimony prior to the shooting to suggest Petitioner was angry; and (2) testimony from the pathologist explaining the pathway of the bullet could have been caused by Petitioner shooting the victim as he walked up the stairs to the house. In urging the Supreme Court to find the error was harmless, "the State entirely disregards the testimony of its own witness that it was plausible the fatal wound could have been caused by the victim charging Petitioner, exactly as Petitioner testified. The competing inferences involved in this circumstantial evidence case illustrate well the need for the Logan charge. Because the failure to provide the Logan circumstantial evidence charge was not harmless and that failure manifestly prejudiced Petitioner, we reverse and remand for a new trial." View "South Carolina v. Herndon" on Justia Law

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Respondent Tommie Rae Brown sought to establish she was the survivor of the late entertainer James Brown, who died in 2006. An issue arose in the context of Respondent's claims for an elective or omitted spouse's share of Brown's estate. There was uncertainty as to Respondent's marital status because she did not obtain an annulment of her first recorded marriage until after her marriage ceremony to Brown. In January 2004, Brown filed an action to annul his marriage to Respondent, indicating the parties had recently separated. Brown alleged he was entitled to an annulment because Respondent never divorced her first husband, so their purported marriage was void ab initio. Brown asked that Respondent "be required to permanently vacate the marital residence" and noted the parties had executed a prenuptial agreement that resolved all matters regarding equitable division, alimony, and attorney's fees. Respondent's omitted spouse claims were transferred to the circuit court, which granted her motion for partial summary judgment, and denied a similar motion by the Limited Special Administrator and Trustee (LSA). The circuit court found that as a matter of law, Respondent was Brown's surviving spouse. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari review of claims made by several of Brown's children, and after such review, concluded Respondent was not Brown's surviving spouse. Consequently, the court of appeals' decision affirming the circuit court was reversed, and the matter remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings. The circuit court was directed upon remand to promptly proceed with the probate of Brown's estate in accordance with his estate plan. View "Brown v. Sojourner" on Justia Law

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John Massey, Jr. was indicted for first-degree burglary, grand larceny, and criminal conspiracy. The circuit court granted a defense motion to quash the indictment for first-degree burglary on the basis the premises entered did not qualify as a dwelling. The court of appeals affirmed. The State contended on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court that, beyond the fact that the circuit court did not have the authority to quash a facially valid indictment on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds, the court of appeals erred in affirming the circuit court's ruling on the merits. To this, the Supreme Court agreed, and reversed. The matter was remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings. View "South Carolina v. Massey" on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision in Wilson v. Gandis, Op. No. 2018-UP-078 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Feb. 7, 2018). David Wilson, John Gandis, and Andrea Comeau-Shirley (Shirley) are members of Carolina Custom Converting, LLC (CCC). Wilson filed suit against Gandis, Shirley and CCC, alleging they engaged in oppressive conduct against him. Wilson also brought a derivative action against CCC. Wilson sought a forced buyout of his membership interest by Gandis, Shirley, and CCC. CCC counterclaimed against Wilson, alleging Wilson misappropriated its trade secrets and communicated these secrets to Neologic Distribution, Inc. and to Fresh Water Systems, Inc. During a five-day bench trial, the trial court received over three hundred exhibits and heard testimony from ten witnesses. The trial court found Gandis and Shirley engaged in oppressive conduct and ordered them to individually purchase Wilson's distributional interest in CCC for $347,863.23. The trial court found in favor of Wilson on CCC's, Gandis', and Shirley's counterclaim for breach of fiduciary duty. The trial court also found in favor of Wilson, Neologic, and Fresh Water on CCC's trade secrets claim. CCC, Gandis, and Shirley appealed. In an unpublished opinion, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court and adopted the trial court's order in its entirety. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed as modified the court of appeals' decision as to Wilson's claim for oppression, affirmed the court of appeals' decision as to Gandis' and Shirley's claim for breach of fiduciary duty, and affirmed the court of appeals' decision as CCC's claim for misappropriation of trade secrets. View "Wilson v. Gandis" on Justia Law

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Billy Phillips was convicted of murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. At trial, a DNA analyst testified Phillips could not be excluded as a contributor to a mixture of DNA recovered from two samples taken from the crime scene. The analyst conceded, however, the statistical probability that some other randomly selected and unrelated person also could not be excluded as the person who left the DNA was, for one of the samples, only one in two. Furthermore, the State failed to explain to the trial court or the jury three fundamental concepts underlying the DNA testimony the analyst gave in this particular case. Finally, in several instances, the State presented information to the trial court and the jury that was simply wrong. Taking all of this into consideration, the South Carolina Supreme Court held the trial court erred in not sustaining Phillips' objections to this testimony. The conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Phillips" on Justia Law

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"The right to vote is a cornerstone of our constitutional republic." The voting laws implicated in this case were South Carolina statutes governing absentee voting. Pursuant to subsection 7-15-320(A) of the South Carolina Code (2019), absentee ballots could be used by certain voters who were unable to vote in person because they were absent from their county of residence on election day during the hours the polls are open. Subsection 7-15-320(B) allowed voters to cast absentee ballots when they were not absent from the county, but only if they fit into one of the listed categories of people eligible to vote by absentee ballot. Plaintiffs contended that in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, existing South Carolina law permitted all South Carolina registered voters to vote by absentee ballot in the June 9, 2020 primary election and the November 3, 2020 general election. Plaintiffs implicitly contended that if existing law did not permit this, it should. Plaintiffs asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to hear this case in its original jurisdiction. The South Carolina Republican Party was granted permission to intervene, and moved to dismiss. The Supreme Court granted the request to hear the case in its original jurisdiction, declined to dismiss on grounds raised by the South Carolina Republican Party, but dismissed on alternate grounds: the case did not present a justiciable controversy. View "Bailey v. SC State Election" on Justia Law

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The United States District Court for the District of South Carolina certified a question of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Plaintiff Johnny Thomerson alleged Defendants, the former owners of Lenco Marine (a manufacturer of boat products), failed to give him a three-percent ownership interest in Lenco that was promised to him as part of his compensation package. Plaintiff was hired by Lenco no later than May 2007. Defendant Samuel Mullinax was the CEO of Lenco and Defendant Richard DeVito was its president. Lenco was sold in December 2016 to Power Products, LLC. In his complaint, Plaintiff asserted claims against Defendants for: (1) breach of contract and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (2) promissory estoppel; (3) quantum meruit and unjust enrichment; (4) negligent misrepresentation; (5) constructive fraud; and (6) amounts due under the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing the claims were time-barred. The federal court asked whether the three-year statute of limitations of S.C. Code Ann. 15-3-530 applied to claims for promissory estoppel. The Supreme Court took the opportunity to clarify state law in this regard, and held that the statute of limitations did not apply to promissory estoppel claims. View "Thomerson v. DeVito" on Justia Law

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Kathryn Key was convicted in summary court of driving under the influence (DUI). Her conviction was based upon the testing of her blood, which was drawn without a warrant while she was unconscious. The circuit court reversed and remanded, finding the summary court should have suppressed evidence of Key's blood alcohol concentration because the State did not obtain a warrant. The State appealed, and the appeal was transferred to the South Carolina Supreme Court. While the appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019). In Mitchell, the Supreme Court held for the first time that, generally, law enforcement was permitted to draw the blood of an unconscious DUI suspect without a search warrant pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. However, the Supreme Court acknowledged the possibility of an "unusual" case presenting an exception to this new general rule. The Mitchell Court determined the defendant should be given the opportunity to establish the applicability of the exception to the general rule and remanded the case to the trial court for that purpose. The South Carolina Court carefully considered the Mitchell holding and concluded it would not impose upon a defendant the burden of establishing the absence of exigent circumstances. The Court held the burden of establishing the existence of exigent circumstances remained upon the State. The exigent circumstances issue in this case was not ruled upon by the summary court; therefore, it was remanded for further proceedings at the summary court. View "South Carolina v. Key" on Justia Law

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Several insurance companies (the Insurers) appealed the denial of their motions to intervene in a construction defect action between a property owners' association (the Association) and a number of construction contractors and subcontractors (the Insureds). The underlying construction defect action proceeded to trial, resulting in a verdict for the Association. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court determined the Insurers were not entitled to intervene as a matter of right, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying them permissive intervention. However, the Court held the Insurers had a right to a determination of which portions of the Association's damages are covered under the commercial general liability (CGL) policies between the Insurers and the Insureds. The Court also recognized that the Insurers had the right and ability to contest coverage of the jury verdict in a subsequent declaratory judgment action. "In that action, the Insurers and the Insureds will be bound by the existence and extent of any jury verdict in favor of the Association in the construction defect action. However, they will not be bound as to any factual matters for which a conflict of interest existed, such as determining what portion of the total damages are covered by any applicable CGL policies." View "Builders Mutual Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Michael Landry's petition for a writ of certiorari to determine whether the court of appeals erred in affirming the family court's denial of his motion under Rule 60(a), SCRCP, to correct an alleged clerical error in a final order. Michael Landry (Husband) filed an action against Angela Landry (Wife) seeking a divorce on the ground of one year's continuous separation. On the morning of trial, the parties drafted and signed a handwritten agreement resolving all of the issues between them except for the divorce. Thereafter, the parties informed the court they had reached a final agreement, marked the agreement as Plaintiff's Exhibit 1, and submitted it to the court for approval. The agreement consisted of three pages and seventeen paragraphs, resolving issues of alimony, equitable distribution of property, child support, custody and visitation of the minor child, and attorney's fees. The terms of the agreement were not read into the record; instead, the court questioned both parties about their general understanding of the agreement and whether they entered into it freely and voluntarily. Satisfied, approved and made it the final order of the court. Thereafter, Husband's attorney drafted the order, incorporating the handwritten agreement by typing its terms into the final order. After sending it to opposing counsel for his approval, Husband submitted the order to the family court judge, who signed it on January 18, 2017. Nine weeks later, Husband noticed the order contained a provision requiring him to pay Wife one-half of his military retirement benefits - the focal point of this appeal. believing the addition of paragraph 2 to be a mistake - albeit one made by his own attorney in drafting the order - Husband moved for relief under Rule 60(a), SCRCP, based upon a clerical mistake "arising from oversight or omission." the court denied the motion, finding Husband should have requested relief pursuant to Rule 59(e), SCRCP, rather than through Rule 60(a), SCRCP, and accordingly, the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the merits of the motion. Alternatively, the court found the parties had agreed that one-half of Husband's military retirement benefits would be paid to Wife. Husband appealed to the court of appeals, which affirmed the family court's decision in an unpublished per curiam opinion pursuant to Rule 220(b), SCACR. The Supreme Court concluded the court of appeals erred in affirming the family court's denial of Husband's Rule 60(a) motion based on lack of jurisdiction. The matter was remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine what the parties actually agreed to with respect to Husband's military retirement benefits and whether Husband was entitled to relief. View "Landry v. Landry" on Justia Law