Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
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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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An industrial park was built in an unincorporated area in Laurens County, South Carolina, between the City of Laurens (Laurens) and the City of Fountain Inn (Fountain Inn). Both municipalities provided natural gas service beyond their respective borders, and each sought to serve the industrial customers in the new industrial park. However, Laurens -through its subsidiary, the Laurens Commission of Public Works (LCPW) - claimed Fountain Inn could not compete for the industrial customers' business because LCPW had established a designated service area and therefore was the sole authorized natural gas provider to the industrial park. Fountain Inn believed the industrial park was not part of a designated service area, and thus LCPW did not have an exclusive right to provide natural gas to customers in the industrial park. In support of its claim, LCPW asserted it had satisfied the requirements of S.C. Code section 5-7-60 (2004) by providing natural gas in the general vicinity for twenty years pursuant to a 1992 boundary line that was informally agreed to by Laurens and Fountain Inn. Agreeing with LCPW that it had properly created a designated service area, the circuit court enjoined Fountain Inn from providing natural gas service to the industrial park, and the court of appeals affirmed. Because there was no reasonable interpretation of section 5-7-60 that would permit LCPW to claim a designated service area over the industrial park, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed. View "Commissioners of Public Works v. City of Fountain Inn" on Justia Law

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In November 2008, the Anderson County, South Carolina Council (2008 Council) approved a $1.1 million Severance Agreement for county administrator Joey Preston (Preston). In January 2009, a new county council (2009 Council) was sworn in, and filed suit seeking to invalidate the Severance Agreement. The circuit court ruled that, despite tainted votes, the Severance Agreement was valid and also held: (1) public policy rendered neither the Severance Agreement nor the vote adopting it void; (2) Preston did not breach a fiduciary duty because he owed no duty to disclose Council members' personal conflicts of interest; (3) the County failed to prove its claims for fraud, constructive fraud, and negligent misrepresentation; (4) the 2008 Council's approval of the Severance Agreement was neither unreasonable or capricious nor a product of fraud and abuse of power; (5) the County's constructive trust claim no longer remained viable; (6) rescission was unavailable as a remedy; (7) the County had unclean hands; (8) adequate remedies at law barred the County from invoking the court's equitable jurisdiction; (9) the County breached the covenant not to sue in the Severance Agreement by bringing this lawsuit; and (10) the issue concerning the award of attorney's fees should be held in abeyance pending the final disposition and filing of a petition. Pertinent here, a panel of the Court of Appeals found the trial court erred in refusing to invalidate the 2008 Council's approval of the Severance Agreement based upon the absence of a quorum, and reversed. The South Carolina Supreme Court determined this judgment was made in error: the County lacked a quorum. The matter was remanded to the circuit court to determine the exact amount Preston had to refund the County. View "Anderson County v. Preston" on Justia Law

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In 2006, taxpayer University Ventures, LLC purchased a vacant lot in Charleston County, South Carolina (the Property). In 2008, Taxpayer received building permits to construct a hotel and pool on the Property. Construction began, and the hotel and pool were completed in April 2009, at which time a certificate of occupancy was issued. As a result of the completed improvements and pursuant to law, the Charleston County Assessor (the Assessor) reappraised the Property, which resulted in an increase in the value of the Property, which in turn increased the Taxpayer's 2010 property tax bill. The Taxpayer paid the increased 2010 tax bill without objection. This case centered on Taxpayer's challenge to the 2011 tax bill. In 2011, the Assessor continued to value the Property as an improved lot, which it in fact was. The Taxpayer protested and claimed its 2011 tax bill should have been based on the Property's value as a vacant lot as of December 31, 2008. The court of appeals rejected the Taxpayer's argument, finding it would be absurd to value the Property as a vacant lot after improvements were completed. The South Carolina Supreme Court found, consistent with South Carolina's statutory scheme, that when the value set by a reassessment program's uniform date of value conflicts with the value set by the completion of improvements to property, the improvement value controls. View "Charleston County Assessor v. University Ventures" on Justia Law

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Johnny Tucker injured his shoulder on May 2, 2011, while working at the South Carolina Department of Transportation. The commission found he "sustained 5% permanent partial disability . . . for which he is entitled to fifteen weeks of compensation." On May 2, 2013, Tucker filed a Form 50 asserting a claim for additional benefits on the basis that his condition caused by the 2011 injury had changed. Tucker checked the box on line 13a of the Form 50 indicating, "I am not requesting a hearing at this time." On July 30, 2014, Tucker filed another Form 50. This second Form 50 was identical to the first except this time he checked the box on line 13b indicating, "I am requesting a hearing." Petitioners, the Department of Transportation and the State Accident Fund, defended the claim on the basis that Tucker did not comply with the timing requirement of subsection 42-17-90(A). The subsection provided that when a party makes a claim based on a change of condition, "the review must not be made after twelve months from the date of the last payment of compensation pursuant to an award." Tucker received his last payment of compensation on November 28, 2012. The first Form 50 was filed within twelve months, but Tucker's request for a hearing in the second Form 50 did not occur within twelve months. The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected Petitioners' argument that satisfying this timing requirement was dependent on a claimant requesting a hearing within the time period set forth in South Carolina Code subsection 42-17-90(A) (2015). Rather, the Court held the timing requirement is satisfied upon the filing of a Form 50 to initiate the claim. View "Tucker v. SCDOT" on Justia Law

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Daufuskie Island Utility Company, Inc. (DIUC) filed an application with the Public Service Commission for a rate increase for the water and sewer service it provides to residents of Daufuskie Island in Beaufort County. During a hearing on the merits of the application, the commission approved a purported settlement agreement between the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) and three property owners' associations: Haig Point Club and Community Association Inc., Melrose Property Owner's Association, Inc., and Bloody Point Property Owner's Association. DIUC appealed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding the agreement "was not a true settlement" because DIUC did not agree to it. The case was thereafter remanded the case to the commission for a new hearing on all issues. On remand, the commission held a second hearing on the merits and issued a second order. DIUC appealed the second order, arguing the commission erred in disallowing certain rate case expenses and refusing to include items of capital in DIUC's rate base. DIUC argued ORS and the commission applied a higher standard of scrutiny on remand in retaliation against DIUC for successfully seeking reversal of the commission's initial order. At oral argument on this second appeal, when pressed by the Court to respond to DIUC's "retaliation" argument, appellate counsel for ORS conceded a heightened standard had been employed. In reversing the Commission, the Supreme Court determined the arbitrary, higher standard of scrutiny affected substantial rights of DIUC. The commission's findings of fact and conclusions of law therefore had to be reversed. The matter was remanded again for a new hearing. View "Daufuskie Island v. SC Office of Regulatory Staff" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was candidate Glenn Odom’s contest of a McBee Town Council election. The McBee Municipal Election Commission ruled on the contest, and Odom appealed the Commission's decision to the circuit court. The circuit court ruled in favor of Odom, and the Commission and candidate Shilon Green (collectively, Appellants) appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court. During the election, several people attempting to vote were challenged as nonresidents of McBee. At the heart of this appeal were votes cast by four of the challenged voters. The Commission heard testimony from Odom and the four challenged voters and heard arguments from counsel. The four challenged voters testified they were McBee residents at all appropriate times and further testified they voted for Odom. In its written decision, the Commission found the four voters were eligible to vote in the election. The Commission wrote: "Because adding the four votes to the total for Glenn Odom would have changed the outcome of the election, the Municipal Election Commission hereby invalidates the September 5, 2018 election and orders a new election as is required under S.C. Code Ann. 5-15-130." Odom appealed the Commission's decision to the circuit court, arguing the Commission erred in ordering a new election instead of simply counting the four votes and declaring he was a prevailing candidate. The circuit court granted Odom's motion for reconsideration and held the Commission erred in invalidating the election and ordering a new election. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's decision to remand the proceedings to the Commission. The Supreme Court modified, however, the circuit court's order in two ways: (1) section 5-15-130, standing alone, required the four votes to be counted; (2) to the extent that the circuit court's decision could be read to order the Commission to declare Odom a prevailing candidate without the four votes first being counted, the Court held the four votes had to first be counted before the results of the election can be determined. The matter was remanded to the Commission and the Court ordered it to unseal the four provisional votes and apply those votes to the vote totals of the candidate(s) for whom the votes were cast, with the results of the election to then be declared accordingly. View "Odom v. Town of McBee Election Comm" on Justia Law

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A jury found Kenneth Campbell met the statutory definition of a sexually violent predator (SVP) under South Carolina's SVP Act, S.C. Code Ann. sections 44-48-10 to -170 (2018). Campbell appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. On petition of certiorari, Campbell contended the court of appeals erred in affirming his civil commitment because the State inappropriately impeached the credibility of Campbell's expert witness by introducing evidence of a recent arrest warrant for an unrelated sex offender whom the expert had opined was unlikely to reoffend. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the admission of testimony about a mere arrest warrant of an unrelated individual in a collateral matter unduly prejudiced Campbell and, therefore, reversed and remanded for a new commitment proceeding. View "In the Matter of the Care & Treatment of Campbell" on Justia Law

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Pamela Russell injured her back in 2009 while working at a Wal-Mart store in Conway, South Carolina. The worker’s compensation commission found Russell suffered a 7% permanent partial disability, and awarded her twenty-one weeks of temporary total disability compensation. In 2011, Russell requested review of her award, claiming there had been a "change of condition caused by the original injury" pursuant to subsection 42-17-90(A) of the South Carolina Code (2015). An appellate panel of the commission remanded Russell's change of condition claim to a single commissioner for what was a third ruling on the same claim. Russell appealed the remand order to the court of appeals, which dismissed the appeal on the ground the order was not a final decision, and thus not immediately appealable. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the remand order was immediately appealable because the commission's unwarranted delay in making a final decision required immediate review to avoid leaving Russell with no adequate remedy on an appeal from a final decision. The Court reversed the court of appeals' order dismissing the appeal, reversed the appellate panel's remand order, and remanded to any appellate panel of the commission for an immediate and final review of the original commissioner's decision. View "Russell v. Wal-Mart" on Justia Law

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This matter stemmed from the administrative law court's (ALC) decision to uphold the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control's (DHEC) renewal of the license under which Chem-Nuclear Systems, LLC (Chem-Nuclear) operated a disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste. Sierra Club appealed the ALC's decision, and the court of appeals affirmed the ALC as to all issues, except as to four subsections of the regulation governing DHEC's issuance and renewal of such licenses. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Chem-Nuclear's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. Although DHEC did not file a petition for a writ of certiorari, DHEC submitted a respondent's brief in the matter agreeing with Chem-Nuclear's arguments and expanding on certain issues raised by Chem-Nuclear. The Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals' conclusion that Chem-Nuclear had notdemonstrated compliance with certain regulations. However, the Court modified the court of appeals' opinion to the extent it could be read to (1) mandate what specific actions must be taken in accomplishing the technical requirements of the applicable statutes and (2) completely ignore the concept of “as low as reasonably achievable” when Chem-Nuclear took direct action to satisfy the law’s technical requirements. Upon remand to DHEC, there would be no limitations to the record, and Chem-Nuclear would be free to introduce any additional actions it has taken to conform to the requirements of the regulations. In the event of an appeal to the ALC, the ALC could conduct its proceedings with no limitations from the Supreme Court on the evidence it could consider. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals' conclusion that ChemNuclear was noncompliant with certain aspects of the law. View "Sierra Club v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law