Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Danny Crane sought workers' compensation benefits for hearing loss and brain injuries he alleged he suffered in a work-related accident. The workers' compensation commission denied most of Crane's claims, finding he was not entitled to benefits for temporary total disability, permanent impairment, or future medical care. The primary basis for denying these three claims was the commissioner who initially heard the case found Crane was not credible. The court of appeals reversed the commission's denial of temporary total disability benefits, but otherwise affirmed. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the commission's denial of permanent impairment and future medical care benefits, finding the commission erred in denying Crane's claims based on credibility without explaining any basis on which credibility could justify ignoring objective medical evidence. The matter was remanded to the commission for a new hearing on all three claims, and before a different commissioner. View "Crane v. Raber's Discount Tire Rack" on Justia Law

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In August 2013, Timothy York drowned when his boat capsized on a pond at Longlands Plantation in Greeleyville, South Carolina. The deceased's brother and personal representative of the estate filed a claim for death benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Although there were initially several individuals who were potential dependents, only York's mother and his girlfriend, Yvonne Burns, claimed death benefits. Burns noted she began seeing the deceased in the late 1990s, but the parties separated before reuniting sometime in 2004-2005. She worked approximately fifty hours per week as a nurse's aide, and filed as head of the household on her tax returns, indicating no one else could claim her as a dependent. Her house was in her name, and she only used "York" on a furniture contract, purportedly because she planned to marry him. Although several witnesses testified she planned to marry while others were unaware of this fact, no one testified that they were in fact married. Burns claimed she was the deceased's common-law wife or alternatively, that she was a dependent under the Act. Whether Burns could qualify as a dependent was the issue this case presented for the South Carolina Supreme Court’s review. The commission found that because Burns was engaged in an illicit relationship in violation of South Carolina’s fornication statute, she could not recover the death benefits as a matter of public policy. The court of appeals reversed, finding, notwithstanding the fact the girlfriend’s initial claim was based on being the deceased's common-law wife, there was no evidence of fornication in the record. Because the relevant facts were not in dispute, the Supreme Court reversed and awarded benefits to the deceased’s mother. View "York v. Longlands Plantation" on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Scott Ledford’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision to affirm the outcome of a Workers’ Compensation Commission hearing. Ledford was a former lance corporal with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. While employed as a highway patrolman, Ledford was injured in two separate work-related accidents: in July 2010, Ledford sustained injuries to his spine after being tasered during a training exercise; and in March 2012, Ledford was involved in a motorcycle accident while attempting to pursue a motorist. Ledford settled the 2010 claim with Respondents. Following the second accident, Ledford filed two separate claims for workers' compensation benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commission Appellate Panel declined to find Ledford suffered a change of condition; however, she found Ledford was entitled to medical benefits for injuries to his right leg and aggravated pre-existing conditions in his neck and lower back due to the motorcycle accident. Neither party appealed the Commission’s order. Months later, Ledford reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"). Commissioner Susan Barden held a hearing on Ledford’s Form 21 in August 2014. Following the hearing, but prior to the issuance of a final order, Ledford filed a motion to recuse Commissioner Barden. According to Ledford's motion, Commissioner Barden requested a phone conference with the parties a month after the hearing during which she allegedly threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case was not settled; indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record; suggested Ledford used "creative accounting" in his tax returns; and questioned Ledford's credibility regarding his claims of neck pain. Ledford contended any one of these grounds was sufficient to warrant recusal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission, finding: (1) Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself; (2) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's decision to reverse Commissioner Barden's permanency determination; and (3) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's findings that Ledford was not credible and his landscaping business remained lucrative following the injury. The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred in finding Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself. The Court was “deeply concerned” by the Commissioner’s conduct in this matter. “Ledford's counsel provided an opportunity for Commissioner Barden to right her wrong by moving for recusal. Instead of stepping aside, Commissioner Barden became more abusive and strident in both her ruling on the recusal motion and her final order.” The Commission’s orders were vacated and the matter remanded for a new hearing before a different commissioner. View "Ledford v. DPS" on Justia Law

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The United States District Court for the District of South Carolina certified a question of state law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Plaintiff was a former employee of BMW at its manufacturing facility in Spartanburg. During his employment, Plaintiff was subject to random drug tests. BMW contracted with Defendant to test hair samples of BMW employees for the presence of drugs. Plaintiff was selected for a random drug test, which was administered on-site by a contract nurse from a local hospital. According to Defendant's analysis, his hair sample tested positive for cocaine and benzoylecgonine (the primary metabolite of cocaine). Though Plaintiff asserted that he had not used any illegal substances, BMW suspended Plaintiff pending an investigation. On April 22, 2014, Plaintiff submitted a hair sample to an independent drug testing laboratory whose report determined that Plaintiff's hair tested negative for any illegal substances. BMW refused to accept the independent laboratory's results but permitted Plaintiff to submit a second hair sample for analysis by Defendant. The second hair sample also tested positive for cocaine and benzoylecgonine. BMW subsequently terminated Plaintiff due to the positive drug test results. Plaintiff maintained he was not and had never been a drug user. Plaintiff filed an action against Defendant, alleging negligence and negligent supervision. In response, Defendant filed a pre-answer motion to dismiss on the basis that Defendant did not owe a duty to Plaintiff. The certified question posed to the South Carolina Supreme Court asked whether a drug testing laboratory contracted with an employer to conduct and evaluate drug tests, owed a duty of care to employees subject to such testing that gives rise to a cause of action for negligence for failure to properly and accurately perform the test and report the results. The Supreme Court responded in the affirmative: “without the recognition of a duty, a terminated employee is often left without a means for redress, while the drug testing laboratory is effectively immunized from liability. … Therefore, absent a duty of care, drug testing laboratories are able to avoid liability for their negligence.” View "Shaw v. Psychemedics Corporation" on Justia Law

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Petitioners Mark and Larkin Hammond built and operated several successful restaurants in Lake Lure, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina. The Hammonds hired Respondent Kyle Pertuis to manage the restaurants, and as part of his compensation, Pertuis acquired minority ownership interests in the three restaurants. Pertuis eventually decided to leave the business, and this dispute primarily concerned the percentage and valuation of Pertuis's ownership interests in the three restaurants. Following a bench trial, the trial court found the three corporate entities should have been amalgamated into a "de facto partnership" operating out of Greenville, South Carolina. The trial court further awarded Pertuis a 10% ownership interest in the two North Carolina restaurants, a 7.2% ownership interest in the South Carolina restaurant, and a total of $99,117 in corporate distributions from the restaurants. The trial court further concluded Pertuis was an oppressed minority shareholder, valued each of the three corporations, and ordered a buyout of Pertuis's shares. The court of appeals affirmed. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals findings as to amalgamation, "de facto partnership," and the award of 7.2% ownership interest in one of the restaurants. The Court affirmed as modified the court of appeals finding that Pertuis was entitled to unpaid shareholder distributions. The Court vacated the court of appeals opinion to the extent it made any findings as to the two North Carolina corporations, and affirmed the balance of the judgment of the court of appeals pursuant to Rule 220, SCACR. View "Pertuis v. Front Roe Restaurants, Inc." on Justia Law

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Respondent Otis Nero filed a workers' compensation claim alleging he sustained injuries to his back and shoulder while on the job. The single commissioner found respondent suffered an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of respondent's employment, and awarded benefits. The appellate panel reversed the decision of the single commissioner, finding respondent failed to provide timely notice of the injury. On appeal from the commission's decision, the court of appeals employed the de novo standard of review applicable to jurisdictional questions, and reversed the commission. In finding the question of timely notice was a jurisdictional question subject to de novo review, the court of appeals relied on Shatto v. McLeod Regional Medical Center, 753 S.E.2d 416 (2013) and Mintz v. Fiske-Carter Construction Co., 63 S.E.2d 50 (1951). The South Carolina Supreme Court found neither Shatto nor Mintz supported the court of appeals' use of the de novo standard. Until this case, the court of appeals consistently applied the substantial evidence standard when reviewing decisions of the commission on the question of timely notice. The Supreme Court found that under well-settled law, the commission's determination of whether a claimant gave timely notice under section 42-15-20 was not a jurisdictional determination, and had to be reviewed on appeal under the substantial evidence standard. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and remanded for a decision under the proper standard of review. View "Nero v. SCDOT" on Justia Law

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The court of appeals affirmed a jury verdict for Jacklyn Donevant in her wrongful termination action against the Town of Surfside Beach, finding her cause of action fit within the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Donevant was fired because she carried out her mandatory responsibility under the law to enforce the provisions of the South Carolina building code. Donevant discovered unpermitted construction work she determined to be in violation of the building code, and she issued a stop work order. She was fired a few days later. The Town appealed, contending the court of appeals misinterpreted the "public policy exception." The South Carolina Supreme Court determined the Town misinterpreted the public policy exception: "Donevant was enforcing the building code and therefore enforcing a clear mandate of public policy when she issued the stop-work order. ... Under the circumstances of this case, firing Donevant for carrying out her mandatory responsibility to enforce the building code violates public policy." View "Donevant v. Town of Surfside Beach" on Justia Law

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The court of appeals affirmed a jury verdict for Jacklyn Donevant in her wrongful termination action against the Town of Surfside Beach, finding her cause of action fit within the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Donevant was fired because she carried out her mandatory responsibility under the law to enforce the provisions of the South Carolina building code. Donevant discovered unpermitted construction work she determined to be in violation of the building code, and she issued a stop work order. She was fired a few days later. The Town appealed, contending the court of appeals misinterpreted the "public policy exception." The South Carolina Supreme Court determined the Town misinterpreted the public policy exception: "Donevant was enforcing the building code and therefore enforcing a clear mandate of public policy when she issued the stop-work order. ... Under the circumstances of this case, firing Donevant for carrying out her mandatory responsibility to enforce the building code violates public policy." View "Donevant v. Town of Surfside Beach" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Henton Clemmons, Jr. injured his back and neck while working at Lowe's Home Center and brought a claim for disability benefits under the scheduled-member statute of the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Act (the Act). Although all the medical evidence indicated Clemmons had lost fifty percent or more of the use of his back, the Workers' Compensation Commission awarded him permanent partial disability based upon a forty-eight percent impairment to his back. The court of appeals affirmed. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding the Commission's finding of only forty-eight percent loss of use was not supported by substantial evidence. View "Clemmons v. Lowe's Home Centers" on Justia Law

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Respondent Walter Smith was injured in December 2012 following a motor vehicle accident. Smith settled with respondent Corbett Mizzell for the policy limits of Mizzell's liability coverage in exchange for a covenant not to execute. Smith then sued Appellants Norman Tiffany, Individually, Brown Trucking Company and Brown Integrated Logistics, claiming Appellants' negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. The issue before the South Carolina Supreme Court stemmed from Appellants' efforts to have Mizzell added as a defendant. In the South Carolina Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act (Act), the legislature abrogated pure joint and several liability for tortfeasors who were less than fifty percent at fault. The Act directed the fact-finder to apportion one-hundred percent of the fault between the plaintiff and "each defendant whose actions were the proximate cause of the indivisible injury." The trial court rejected Appellants' various arguments and, in granting Mizzell summary judgment, applied the Act as written. In affirming the trial court, the Supreme Court was “likewise constrained by the plain meaning of the unambiguous language in the Act. While we appreciate the equity-driven argument of Appellants, we must honor legislative intent as clearly expressed in the Act, lest we run afoul of separation of powers.” View "Smith v. Tiffany" on Justia Law