Judges are often sticklers for court deadlines, but they have to at least give a reason for dismissing a case when a lawyer fails to file a brief on time, the South Carolina Supreme Court said this month in a sharp rebuke of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission.
In Misty Morris vs. BB&T Corp., the high court last week reversed an appeals court’s decision and found that the compensation commission had erred when it gave no reason in dismissing an appeal over attorney fees, after the claimant’s attorney missed a filing deadline.
Lawyers for the commission asked the court to uphold its dismissal, saying the commission had used its discretion and the court should respect that. The justices felt differently.
“We disagree the commission is entitled to any deference in this case … because there is no indication the commission actually exercised its discretion,” Justice John Cannon Few wrote in the opinion.
The attorney for the injured worker, David Proffitt, of Columbia, said he hopes the decision will prompt the commission to hear more cases on the facts, instead of dismissing them on a technicality such as a calendar error.
“Attorneys make mistakes; we’re not perfect,” Proffitt said. “So, my hope and my goal is that the commission will hear more things on the merits after this.”
The case, which could have considerable implications on other workers’ claims, began in 2016. Misty Morris suffered debilitating illness from mold found inside the bank where she worked and she filed a claim against BB&T, now Truist, one of the largest banking corporations in the Southeast. Proffitt asked for about $41,000 in fees and costs. A compensation commissioner, Susan Barden, granted only $26,000 and Proffitt appealed to an appeals panel, made up of other compensation commissioners.
But because he missed the deadline for filing his brief – he said he marked the wrong date on his calendar – the Workers’ Compensation Commission’s judicial director dismissed the appeal. Proffitt then filed a motion to reinstate the appeal, arguing that a calendar mistake should be considered “good cause” for reinstating. He apologized for the mistake.
The commission, however, denied his request without giving an explanation. A commissioner simply checked a box on a form that denied the motion for rehearing. Proffitt appealed to a state appellate court, which upheld the dismissal.
The Supreme Court justices reversed, citing the appeals court’s own 2021 opinion in Jordan vs. Hartford Financial Corp. That decision noted that “the commission’s summary denial of [a] motion to reinstate without rational analysis of the good cause standard was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion.”
At oral argument, the justices questioned the comp commission’s attorney on why the Jordan decision did not guide the commission in Proffitt’s case. The lawyer said that the commission had made a discretionary decision and that the high court should defer to that.
Appeals courts have often written that they do tend to defer to lower courts’ and juries’ actions in many instances. But in this case, the state Supreme Court said it felt compelled to point out that by simply checking a box, without giving reason, the commission did not truly exercise any discretion.
“We publish this decision to clarify that no court is entitled to the deference associated with the discretion standard of review until that court has earned deference by fulfilling the responsibility of exercising its discretion according to law,” the justices wrote.
The court cited 1987 and 1997 court decisions that found that failures to exercise discretion amount to abuses of discretion. The exercise of discretion requires that the trial court recognize that it has the responsibility of discretion, the court said.
Courts and commissions in other cases have argued that filing deadlines are important and must be enforced. Otherwise, courts would be bogged down in constantly rescheduling dockets. The South Carolina Supreme Court, in fact, in 2007 had dismissed an appeal after the appellant failed to timely file a brief, the comp commission’s attorneys said in their brief in the Morris case.
The meaning of “good cause” as spelled out in state statutes on this type of matter has never been decided by court rulings, commission attorneys Keith Roberts and Kristen McRee wrote.
The justices acknowledged all of that.
“The failure to accurately calendar a filing deadline will not constitute good cause for reinstating an appeal in every instance,” the opinion concludes. “We have reviewed the record in this case, however, and we find Proffitt demonstrated good cause.”
The compensation commission’s appeals panel must now hear Proffitt’s arguments on the merits – on the amount of fees and costs.
In his brief, Proffitt argued that the underlying facts of the attorney fee and costs issue are important because they could affect the amount of other workers’ compensation claims, he said.
The commission has taken the position that presently paid benefits in a settlement – when made as payment of future costs in order to maximize a Social Security disability award – means the attorney is not entitled to a fee on the “future” portion, Proffitt wrote.
“Petitioner (Proffitt) believes the Commission’s position could cause attorneys to avoid such designations and consequently reduce a claimant’s subsequent disability award,” he noted. “Petitioner may be right on the merits of the underlying case or he may be wrong, but he should have been allowed to appeal the matter to the Full Commission and the appellate courts.”
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