Just like judges in other types of cases, South Carolina workers’ compensation commissioners are under an obligation to be fair and impartial in matters proceeding before them. If a judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned in a particular case, he or she is supposed to disqualify himself or herself from further rulings in the matter.
Unfortunately, this does not always happen, and it is up to the court of appeals and state supreme court to remedy matters later on. If the reviewing court determines that a judge should have granted a parties’ motion to recuse, the court has the option of reversing the decision that the judge ultimately made and remanding the case to a different judge for further proceedings.
In a case recently considered by the state supreme court, a workers’ compensation commissioner’s actions were held to be “quite simply unacceptable and offensive to the ideals of a fair and impartial judiciary.”
Facts of the Case
The plaintiff in a recent workers’ compensation case was a former lance corporal with the state highway patrol department. During his employment, he was reportedly involved in two work-related accidents. The first was in 2010 and involved injuries to his spin after being tasered during a training exercise. The second was a 2012 motorcycle accident (the plaintiff was pursuing a motorist while in the line of duty). As a result of his work-related injuries, the plaintiff filed multiple claims for workers’ compensation benefits, and these claims were eventually consolidated. In 2014, the defendant employer filed a Form 21, asserting that the plaintiff had reached a point of maximum medical improvement and requesting a permanency determination.
A hearing was held on the issues, but, before the commissioner had issued a ruling, a phone conference was held between the commissioner, the parties, and their attorneys. In a motion to recuse the commissioner following this call, the plaintiff alleged that the commissioner had threatened criminal proceedings against him if the case was not settled, indicated that she had engaged in her own investigation and made findings based upon materials outside the record, had suggested that the plaintiff’s tax returns were inaccurate, and had questioned the plaintiff’s credibility regarding his claims. The commissioner denied the motion and refused to recuse herself, determined that the plaintiff had 0% permanent impairment, and ruled that the defendant was only liable for future physical therapy and injections (not any other future medical care). The appellate panel affirmed as to the commissioner’s denial of the motion to recuse but found that the plaintiff had suffered a 15% additional permanent partial disability to his back. The court of appeals affirmed.
The Court’s Ruling
The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, vacated, and remanded, holding that the court of appeals had erred in finding that the commissioner was not required to recuse herself. Noting that the defendant’s attorney had been questioned during the court’s oral arguments and had corroborated the version of events given by the plaintiff’s attorney in his affidavit concerning the phone conference, the court stated that it was “deeply concerned with [the commissioner’s] conduct in this matter” and found that her remarks about a so-called “duty to report [the plaintiff] for criminal prosecution” left the plaintiff with two equally undesirable options: move forward the claim and risk being referred for criminal prosecution or settle the case and forfeit his right to have his claim adjudicated.
The court went on to state that, although the commissioner had been provided with an opportunity to right her wrong by granting the motion for recusal, she had, instead, “become more abusive and strident in both her recusal motion and her final order.” In the court’s opinion, the commissioner’s own affidavit concerning the phone conference was false, appalling, and served only to compound the initial error. Thus, the matter was to be remanded for a new hearing before a different commissioner.
Speak to a South Carolina Work Injury Attorney
Those who have been hurt on the job should seriously consider retaining an attorney to represent them during the process of seeking workers’ compensation benefits from their employer or its insurance company. To schedule a free consultation with a seasoned South Carolina workers’ compensation attorney, please call the Patrick E. Knie Law Offices at 864-582-5118. We have offices in both Spartanburg and Greenville, and we represent injured workers throughout the state of South Carolina.