This Week’s Decisions from the Supreme Court of South Carolina

scsctOn Wednesday, January 28, 2015, the Supreme Court of South Carolina published six opinions:  Taghivand v. Rite Aid, Carolina First Bank v. BADD, L.L.C., State v. Brewer, State v. Morris, Cullen v. McNeal, and McNaughton v. Charleston Charter School.

In Taghivand v. Rite Aid, the court answered a certified question submitted by Judge Richard M. Gergel of the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.  The district court asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to “delineate the parameters of the public policy except to the doctrine of at-will employment….” or as the court phrased it “whether the public policy exception is broad enough to permit a cause of action in tort for employees who are terminated for reporting a suspected crime….[?]”

Taghivand was a manager for Rite Aid in North Charleston.  He suspected a patron of shoplifting so ordered the cashier on duty to call the police.  The police arrived and searched the suspected shoplifting patron.  They discovered nothing on the patron.  Unpleasantness likely then ensued .  Rite Aid later terminated Taghivand that afternoon.

Taghivan then filed suit in federal district court, alleging wrongful termination.  Rite Aid then moved to dismiss, citing the at-will doctrine of employment.  Judge Gergel then sent the following certified question to the court: “…does an at-will employee have a cause of action in tort where (1) the employee, a store manager, reasonably suspects that criminal activity, specifically shoplifting, has occurred on the employer’s premises, (2) the employee, acting in good faith, reports the suspected criminal activity to law enforcement, and (3) the employee is terminated in retaliation for reporting the suspected criminal activity to law enforcement?”

The South Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the answer to Judge Gergel’s question was no, holding that “…the public policy of this state finds expression in our longstanding adherence to at-will employment; any exception to this doctrine, which is itself firmly rooted in the public policy of this state, should emanate from the General Assembly and from this Court only when the legislature has not spoken.  Absent a more clear and articulable definition of policy from the General Assembly regarding those who report suspected crimes, we refuse to broad the exception to the at-will employment doctrine….”

In Carolina First Bank v. BADD, L.L.C., the case originated in the Horry County Circuit Court.  BADD purchased three warehouses in Myrtle Beach and financed those purchases with promissory notes submitted to Carolina First.  William McKown, a member of BADD, also executed a personal guaranty for the promissory notes.  When BADD defaulted on the loans, Carolina First initiated a foreclosure action and included McKown, pursuant to South Carolina Code of Laws Section 29-3-660, based on his status as a guarantor.

McKown filed a counter-claim and demanded a jury trial.  That was denied but the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that McKown was entitled to a jury trial.  The Supreme Court of South Carolina disagreed with the Appeals Court and reversed.  Interpreting Section 29-3-660 and noting that it existed prior to the South Carolina Constitution, the court stated that “…a party does not have a right to a jury trial when he is included in the action solely for the purpose of obtaining a deficiency judgment.”  The Court further held that McKown’s counterclaims were permissive rather than compulsory and thus he waived his right to a jury trial by asserting these claims in an action at equity.

State v. Brewer is an appeal by Brewer to reverse his multiple convictions in conjunction with a nightclub shooting.  Brewer was at a Beaufort nightclub when he withdrew his handgun while inside the club.  Witnesses testified that he shot Donald Parker inside the club.  Parker survived.  Brewer and another man, Middleton, then went outside the club.  Middleton also had a gun.  Both men were shooting their guns.  Henry Jones a bystander, was hit by a stray bullet and killed.

The police arrived and arrested Brewer.  He voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and submitted to a police interrogation that was tape.  At some point in the interrogation, the police insisted that Brewer keep talking to “prove his innocence.”  Brewer then asked that the questioning stop.  It did not.

At trial, the tape was admitted into evidence.  The entire tape, including the police comments that included hearsay plus the police assertion that it was Brewer’s responsibility to “prove his innocence, was played to the jury over Brewer’s objections.  Brewer was convicted of assault and battery, possession of a weapon and murder.

Brewer appealed, arguing that his “unredacted audiotaped interrogation…was error.”  Reiterating that the “…improper admission of hearsay testimony constitutes reversible error only when the admission causes prejudice, …”the Court let the conviction stand for assault and battery but reversed the murder charge and remanded for a new trial.  justice Pleicones dissented while Justice Beatty partially concurred and partially dissented.

About Lisa Smith-Butler

Associate Professor of Law Charleston School of Law 385 Meeting St., Suite 322B Charleston, S.C. 29403 843.377.2144
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