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2004-UP-533 - Harrington v. Hopewell Health Care Center

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

Sylvia Harrington, Claimant,        Appellant,

v.

Hopewell Health Care Center, Employer and RSKCo., Carrier,        Respondents.


Appeal From Sumter County
Thomas W. Cooper, Jr., Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-533
Submitted October 1, 2004 – Filed October 20, 2004


REVERSED AND REMANDED


Stephen B. Samuels, of Sumter, for Appellant.

Ellen H. Goodwin, of Columbia, for Respondents.

PER CURIAM:  In this workers’ compensation case, Sylvia Harrington appeals the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission’s denial of her Form 15 request for a hearing to determine whether she was entitled to further temporary compensation payments.  We reverse and remand. [1]

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Harrington worked as a nursing assistant to the Hopewell Health Care Center.  On November 11, 2001, she sustained a compensable injury to her left hand while turning a patient.  Although Hopewell accepted her claim and paid medical benefits, Harrington missed no time from work as a result of this injury.

Harrington re-injured her left hand on April 4, 2002, when a patient sat on her hand while she was placing the patient into a wheelchair.  In addition to medical treatment for this injury, Hopewell paid Harrington temporary total disability compensation.  It appears undisputed that (1) Harrington began receiving temporary total disability compensation on April 11, 2002; (2) Harrington was released by her treating physician on September 9, 2002, to return to work in a regular and full duty capacity; and (3) Hopewell paid no temporary total disability compensation after September 25, 2002.

On January 9, 2003, Harrington, through her attorney, filed a Form 15 with the Commission contesting the termination of her total disability compensation and requesting a hearing to determine whether she was entitled to have these benefits continue.  On January 14, 2003, the Commission advised Harrington’s attorney in writing that Harrington was not entitled to a hearing.  The Commission stated it was denying the request because the date Hopewell terminated benefits was “outside the 150 day rule.” 

On February 13, 2003, Harrington appealed the denial of her hearing request to the circuit court.  The circuit court heard arguments in the matter on March 11, 2003.  On July 14, 2003, the circuit court filed an order dismissing Harrington’s appeal.  In support of the dismissal, the circuit court determined (1) the Commission’s letter of January 14, 2003, denying Harrington’s request for a hearing was not a final decision; (2) the Commission’s refusal to schedule a Form 15 hearing did not amount to a deprivation of Harrington’s due process rights; and (3) Harrington failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. 

LAW/ANALYSIS

1.  Harrington first contends the circuit court erred in finding she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.  In support of this position, she argues that her use of Form 15 to contest the termination of her benefits was proper and therefore an exhaustion of her administrative remedies.  We agree.

Under administrative regulation 67-207, a claimant may request a hearing by filing “a Form 15, Form 50, or Form 52 with the Commission’s Judicial Department.” [2]   Here, Harrington had filed a Form 15 with the Commission and indicated, through the signature of her attorney in the appropriate space on the form, that she did not agree with the termination of temporary compensation and was requesting a hearing on the matter.  Even though, as the circuit court noted, there may have been other means, such as a motion or petition or another form, to request a hearing, the applicable administrative regulation requires that she avail herself of only one of several enumerated methods.  It does not require that she resort to the other methods if the first method does not yield the desired result. [3]

2.  We further agree with Harrington that the Commission’s denial of her Form 15 request violated the procedural provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act. 

South Carolina Code section 42-9-260 governs the procedure for suspending or terminating temporary disability payments. [4]   Under paragraph (A) of this statute, an employer may continue temporary disability payments “for up to one hundred fifty days from the date the injury . . . is reported without waiver of any grounds for good faith denial.” [5]   Within this one-hundred-fifty-day period, the payments may be terminated or suspended immediately under certain conditions. [6]

Pursuant to paragraph (F) of section 42-9-260, [7] the Commission has adopted administrative regulation 67-505, which governs the procedure for terminating or suspending temporary disability payments after the one-hundred-fifty-day period has expired.  If an employer wants to suspend or terminate temporary total disability after one hundred fifty days without the claimant’s consent, it must file a Form 21 to request a hearing on the matter. [8]

Under section 42-9-260(C), a claimant whose disability payments have been terminated may request a hearing within sixty days for reinstatement of these benefits. [9]    This remedy is available whenever the “disability payments have been terminated or suspended pursuant to this section.” [10]   It does not matter whether the employer ceased making payments within the first one hundred fifty days after the injury or after that period of time has elapsed. 

It appears that the Commission, in denying Harrington’s hearing request, placed undue emphasis on section II of Form 15.  This section is used solely by the employer to unilaterally terminate temporary disability compensation within the first one hundred fifty days after receiving notice of the injury.  Consistent with section 42-9-260, the time limit plainly refers only to the use of section II. [11]  

Harrington, however, used section III of Form 15 and, as expressly stated in this part of the form, the signature of her attorney in this section indicated that she did not agree with the termination of temporary compensation and was requesting a hearing to determinate whether she was entitled to further temporary compensation payments.  Nowhere on Form 15 is there any prohibition against using section III after one hundred fifty days following notice to the employer of a work-related injury. [12]  

CONCLUSION

The letter from the Commission denying Harrington’s request for a hearing was a final order and subject to judicial review.  We further hold the Commission’s denial of Harrington’s Form 15 request for a hearing on her entitlement to continuation of her temporary disability compensation violated the procedures mandated by section 42-9-260. [13]   We therefore reverse the circuit court and remand this case to the Commission for a Form 15 hearing.

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

GOOLSBY, ANDERSON, and WILLIAMS, JJ., concur.


[1]   Because oral argument would not aid the court in resolving the issues on appeal, we decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.

[2]   25A S.C. Code Ann. Regs. 67-207 (Supp. 2003) (emphasis added).

[3] See 73 C.J.S. Public Administrative Law and Procedure § 39 n.80, at 459 (1983) (“Exhaustion of remedies does not refer to reapplication to the same council or board for an alternative form of relief from an already promulgated adverse and final decision, especially when such suggested action would be futile or useless.”).  We further disagree with Respondents’ argument that the letter Harrington received from the Commission denying her request for a hearing “does not constitute a final order of that body.”  See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-350 (1986) (stating the requirements for a “final decision or order adverse to a party in a contested case”); id. § 1-23-360 (recognizing that “members or employees of an agency” may be “assigned to render a decision or to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in a contested case”); 73A C.J.S. Public Adminstrative Law and Procedure § 147, at 120 (1983) (acknowledging that “an administrative order need not be in any particular form” as long as it complies with statutory requirements).

[4]   S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-260 (Supp. 2003).

[5]   Id. § 42-9-260(A).

[6]   Id. § 42-9-260(B).

[7]   Id. § 42-9-260(F).

[8]   S.C. Code Ann. Regs. 67-505 (Supp. 2003).

[9]   S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-260(C) (Supp. 2003).

[10] Id. (emphasis added).

[11] See id. § 42-9-260(B) (stating the conditions under which an employer may terminate or suspend temporary disability payments within one hundred fifty days after such payments have begun).

[12] We reject Respondents’ argument that Harrington’s delay of more than sixty days after the termination of her temporary total benefits renders her argument moot.  The date of the hearing request controls, not the date the benefits are stopped.  See S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-260(C) (Supp. 2003) (“An employee whose disability payments have been terminated or suspended pursuant to this section may request a hearing to have the payments reinstituted.  The hearing must be held within sixty days of the date of the employee’s request for a hearing.”) (emphasis added).

[13] We do not address the issue of whether the Commission’s denial of a hearing amounted to a deprivation of Harrington’s constitutional right to due process.