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Chapman v. South Carolina Department of Social Services

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

May 3, 2017

William Henry Chapman, Appellant,
v.
South Carolina Department of Social Services, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2015-001548

          Heard February 13, 2017

         Appeal From The Administrative Law Court Carolyn C. Matthews, Administrative Law Judge

          Dwight Christopher Moore, of Moore Law Firm, LLC, of Sumter, for Appellant.

          William C. Smith, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          SHORT, J.

         William Henry Chapman filed a grievance against his employer, South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS), alleging his termination was improper. On appeal, he argues the Administrative Law Court (ALC) erred in (1) finding he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and (2) failing to find DSS was estopped from raising the issue even if he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. We reverse and remand.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         DSS terminated Chapman from his employment with the Clarendon County Division of DSS by hand-delivered letter dated June 3, 2014. The letter stated, "You may contact the Office of Human Resource Management at (803) . . . regarding your possible grievance rights." By separate letter dated June 3, 2014, DSS notified Chapman, "Employees must initiate a grievance within 14 calendar days of the effective day of the grievable action." This letter indicated a copy of DSS Form 1449, a copy of the Employee Grievance and Appeal Form, and a copy of the DSS Human Resources Policy and Procedure Manual, Chapter 6 (the Manual) were included with the letter.

         Chapman retained counsel, who responded by letter dated June 12, 2014. The letter stated that pursuant to section 600 of the DSS grievance procedure, Chapman "desire[d] to grieve the termination." Chapman believed this letter was sufficient to grieve his termination. Between June 12 and June 20, 2014, Chapman learned he needed to file a Form 1449. On June 20, 2014, Chapman's counsel submitted Form 1449 to DSS with an accompanying letter stating, "Please find enclosed the DSS Form 1449[, ] which you requested. . . ." The Form 1449 included basic information such as name, job title, and address, and other information including the effective date of the grievable action, an explanation, and the relief sought. By letter dated June 25, 2014, DSS notified Chapman his grievance had been assigned to a grievance reviewer and informed him to send relevant documents by July 9, 2014.

         In a Grievance Decision Form dated July 25, 2014, the Acting State Director of DSS denied Chapman relief, finding, "I uphold the Agency's decision to terminate Mr. Chapman. I have fully reviewed all submitted information prior to rendering this decision." Chapman appealed to the State Human Resources Director (the Director).

         By Final Decision dated September 4, 2014, the Director denied Chapman's appeal. Relying on the fourteen-day time limit to initiate grievances pursuant to section 8-17-330 of the South Carolina Code, the Director found Chapman failed to file his grievance within the required time frame. The Director also cited section 603 of the Manual in finding the grievance was not timely filed because the Form 1449 was not filed within fourteen days. The order found because Chapman failed to timely file his grievance, he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, and the merits of the case were not reviewed. Chapman requested reconsideration, which was denied.

         Chapman appealed to the ALC. By order dated June 16, 2015, the ALC affirmed the Director. The ALC rejected Chapman's argument that the June 12, 2014 letter from his counsel should be viewed as a notice of appeal for the purpose of satisfying the requirements of section 8-17-330 of the South Carolina Code. The ALC noted that although section 8-17-330 requires only that a grievance be initiated within fourteen calendar days, it also contains language mandating each agency establish a grievance procedure. Because Chapman had been provided with the Manual, the ALC found he knew or should have known the appropriate form to file. Finally, although the ALC found Chapman's argument persuasive because "the same information contained in the DSS Form 1449 was included in the notice of appeal from [Chapman's] counsel[, ]" the ALC concluded it was bound by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) to defer to the determination of the agency. The ALC did not rule on Chapman's estoppel argument. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES

         A. Did the ALC err in finding Chapman's grievance was not timely filed and he consequently failed to ...


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