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Ledford v. Department of Public Safety

Supreme Court of South Carolina

October 2, 2019

Scott Ledford, Employee, Petitioner,
Department of Public Safety, Employer, and State Accident Fund, Carrier, Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2018-001677

          Heard April 18, 2019

          Appeal from The Workers' Compensation Commission


          James K. Holmes, of The Steinberg Law Firm, LLP, of Charleston, and E. Hood Temple, of Hatfield Temple, LLP, of Florence, both for Petitioner.

          John Gabriel Coggiola and Sarah C. Sutusky, of Willson Jones Carter & Baxley, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondents.

          PER CURIAM.

         We granted Scott Ledford's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' decision in Ledford v. Department of Public Safety, Op. No. 2018-UP-280 (S.C. Ct. App. filed June 27, 2018). We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, vacate the orders of Commissioner Susan Barden and the Workers' Compensation Commission Appellate Panel ("Appellate Panel"), and remand for a new hearing before a single commissioner.

         Scott Ledford is a former lance corporal with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. While employed as a highway patrolman, Ledford was injured in two separate work-related accidents. In July 2010, Ledford sustained injuries to his spine after being tasered during a training exercise. Ledford settled the 2010 claim with Respondents. In March 2012, Ledford was involved in a motorcycle accident while attempting to pursue a motorist.

         Following the second accident, Ledford filed two separate claims for workers' compensation benefits. One claim alleged injuries to his right leg and lower back stemming from the 2012 motorcycle accident. The other claim related to Ledford's 2010 Taser accident and alleged a change of condition for the worse. The claims were eventually consolidated, and the parties appeared before Commissioner Andrea Roche. Commissioner Roche declined to find Ledford suffered a change of condition; however, she found Ledford was entitled to medical benefits for injuries to his right leg and aggravated pre-existing conditions in his neck and lower back due to the motorcycle accident. Neither party appealed Commissioner Roche's order.

         In January 2014, Respondents filed a Form 21 requesting to stop payment of temporary compensation, a permanency determination, and credit for payments made after Ledford reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"). Commissioner Barden held a hearing on Respondents' Form 21 in August 2014.

         Following the hearing-but prior to the issuance of a final order-Ledford filed a motion to recuse Commissioner Barden. According to Ledford's motion, Commissioner Barden requested a phone conference with the parties a month after the hearing. During this conference, Commissioner Barden allegedly threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case was not settled; indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record; suggested Ledford used "creative accounting" in his tax returns;[1]and questioned Ledford's credibility regarding his claims of neck pain. Ledford contended any one of these grounds was sufficient to warrant recusal.

         In support of his motion to recuse, Ledford submitted an affidavit from his accountant stating Ledford's tax returns were prepared in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Ledford also submitted an affidavit and memorandum from his attorney, E. Hood Temple, who participated in the call with Commissioner Barden and prepared the memorandum immediately afterwards to document what had transpired.

         In Temple's affidavit, he alleged Commissioner Barden stated "while [Ledford] may be a former member of the South Carolina Highway Patrol ACE Team, he was not a member of the 'Truth Team.'" Temple further claimed Commissioner Barden indicated that she "did not believe anything [Ledford] said except his name and age." Temple also alleged Commissioner Barden stated that she realized the State Accident Fund would likely make a minimal offer due to the conference call, and she would have an ongoing duty to report Ledford to the Attorney General for prosecution unless Ledford accepted the Fund's offer. According to Temple, the State Accident Fund made a minimal settlement offer following the phone conference.

         Commissioner Barden denied the troubling statements in Temple's affidavit. Commissioner Barden labeled the affidavit as containing "false statement[s] of fact and a frivolous allegation[, ]" and maintained that she "did not manifest bias or prejudice against [Ledford], but simply informed the parties of the inconsistencies" in his testimony and of her duty to report any suspicions of ...

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