June 12, 2013 South Carolina Supreme Court published opinions

Health Promotion Specialists, LLC v South Carolina Board of Dentistry

Board issue an emergency rule imposing a dental preauthorization requirement before dental hygienists could perform certain procedures in schools. Health sued to have the rule set aside. After various administrative and judicial proceedings, the circuit court granted judgment to Board based on immunity to suit. The Court affirmed. It held teat the Board is a government entity as it was created by statute, its funds are controlled by the State treasurer and its members have state immunity. Thus, as the emergency rule was either a legislative act, an administrative act or the adoption of a rule of law, Board was immune as a mater of law under the South Carolina Tort Claim Act. The Court also addressed Health’s unfair trade practices claim holding that the emergency regulation was a regulatory act not an act in trade or commerce as it did not advertise, sell or distribute goods or services in a business context.

Hutchinson v Liberty Life Insurance Company

Hutchison’s husband died in a truck accident. He had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the crash. Liberty refused to pay accidental death benefits base on an excursion for “narcotics” in his system. The circuit grant ordered benefits, but, the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed. The Court reversed holding that at a minimum “narcotics” is ambiguous as to methamphetamine and the contract must therefore be construed to cover husband’s death. It rejected reliance on criminal cases as the interests there were different and further noted that it was unlikely the legislature in 1947 intended methamphetamine to be covered as it used “narcotics” not “illegal drugs.”

Medlock v University Health Services, Inc.

Medlock is the personal representative of his daughter’s estate. A nonattorney employee of University field a claim in probate court and a petition to allow the claim. Medlock field an original action with the Court arguing these acts constituted unauthorized practice of law. The Court held that the filing of the claim and filling out of a one page standard for petition are not the practice of law as they do not require professional judgment. Thus, corporations may have a nonattorney employee prepare and file these documents in probate courts.

Ware v Ware

Husband sued for divorce in Alabama and shortly thereafter wife sued for separation in South Carolina. She moved to dismiss the Alabama proceeding arguing lack of personal jurisdiction. The motion was ultimately denied. The South Carolina suit went to judgment, including a property division, at a hearing where husband was not present or represented. The Alabama court ruled the South Carolina judgment was null and void and granted a divorce and divided the property. Husband moved to set aside the South Carolina judgment on the grounds that it is void which the South Carolina court denied. The denial was affirmed by the South Carolina Court of Appeals. The Court reversed. It held that Alabama had jurisdiction to grant the divorce under Alabama law and noted that wife did not contest the divorce portion of the judgment. As to the property division and other parts of the judgment, the court reluctantly reversed holding that under the Full Faith and Credit clause, Wife had her opportunity to contest personal jurisdiction in Alabama, that eth decision as wrong, but, whatever reason she failed to challenge the trial court decision on appeal. Thus, she was bared form litigating the validity of the Alabama judgment and the South Carolina judgment was void and must be vacated.

Action Concrete Contractors, Inc. v Chappelear

Action field a mechanic’s lien on Chappelear’s partially completed home. Chappelear argued it had paid the contractor more than the value of the home when abandoned and therefore owed nothing. The trial court granted summary judgment to Action. The Court affirmed. It held that the value of the abandoned property was set the last day the contractor worked on the project which in this case was over seven months after the lien was field. Pursuant to South Carolina code 29-5-50, Action had priority over all other subcontractors. Thus, Chappelear was not entitled to a set off for amounts paid to other subcontractors after the lien was filed. Given the value of the improvements, the amount properly credited to Chappelear and the amount of the project completed, there was enough value for Action to collect the whole amount of the lien and judgment was affirmed.

South Carolina Public Interest Foundation v South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank 

Foundation and a private citizen sued in the Court’s original jurisdiction seeking a declaration that the bank’s board was unconstitutional as legislators serve on it. The Court, with one justice concurring in result and two justices adding a concurrence, denied their petition. It held that standing existed under the public importance exception as there is a need for future guidance. It rejected a dual office claim holding that because the board can authorize bonds, there is a sufficient constitutional nexus to the office of legislator as the legislature is charged with borrowing money as well. Thus, board membership was ex officio and constitutional. The Court rejected a separation of powers argument holding that the composition of the board has a minority of legislator members and deference should be given to the choice of the legislature as to who has the requisite special knowledge and expertise. Justice Pleicones concurred in result arguing that neither plaintiff had standing. He commented on the merits arguing the court was wrong because the Bank is an executive body and legislators are barred from serving on executive bodies. Further, a majority of positions are appointed by the legislature thus even under the law as articulated by the majority, too many positions belong to the legislative branch for the Board to be constitutional. Justice Kittredge, Joined by Chief Justice Toal, added a concurrence pointing out that the nexus analysis provides an objective standard to judge ex officio office holding from impermissible dual office holding and, given the unique strong legislative government of South Carolina, board membership does not violate separation of powers.

Ramsey v Haley

Ramsey filed suit alleging Haley violated state ethics rules. The circuit court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court, with two members concurring in result, affirmed. The majority held that because ethics complaints against House members are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee, the circuit court lacked jurisdiction and dismissal was correct. Justice Beatty, joined by Justice Hearn, concurred in result arguing that the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction as no ethics statute takes away its broad constitutional jurisdiction over civil cases. However, the concurrence argued that dismissal was correct because the suit was actually a criminal prosecution which would deprive Haley of her jury trial rights and Ramsey was not authorized to prosecute Haley. Alternatively, the concurrence argued that Ramsey failed to exhaust his administrative remedy of filing an ethics complaint with the proper body and allowing that body to determine if Haley violated the ethics law.

Narruhn v Alea London Limited

Narruhn was assigned any rights against Alea held by the defendants in a personal injury case arising out of her being shot at a night club. Alea sought to set aside the assignment through a Rule 60 motion which was denied. The Court, with one justice concurring in a spate opinion and one justice dissenting in part, affirmed as modified. It held the Rule 60 motion was timely and that the circuit court had jurisdiction to hear it. However, the majority held that because Alea was not a party to the original proceeding, it was not a party to the order and lacked standing to challenge it through a rule 60 motion. The majority noted, however, that it retained all defenses available under the facts, law and policy. Justice Pleicones concurred arguing that the court should not discuss the merits of Alea’s claims. Justice Kittredge dissented in part arguing that Alea was not given notice and opportunity to be heard before the assignment of the policy to Narruhn and thus it had standing to have the order set aside and that the court’s comments on the merits of the anti-assignment provision was not before the Court and is an advisory opinion. He concurred in result only because Narruhn conceded at oral argument that Alea retains all defenses under the policy.

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