Dispute Between Governor, Workers’ Comp Panel in Court This Month

February 5, 2008

A struggle between the governor’s office of South Carolina and a commission that determines how much money injured workers receive is in federal court this month.

A restraining order blocking the state Workers’ Compensation Commission from following an executive order issued by Gov. Mark Sanford last year expires Feb. 15. Sanford told commissioners to begin using uniform medical standards in deciding how much should be paid to injured workers with long-term disabilities.

That has led to a federal lawsuit that claims the governor’s action violates injured workers’ constitutional right to get a fair hearing.

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor will seek to get the lawsuit dismissed. “We don’t believe there are federal issues in play here,” Sawyer said.

But during a Jan. 14 hearing, U.S. District Judge Ross Anderson said the case against Sanford and the commission raises “very serious federal constitutional issues.”

Anderson issued the restraining order, which also blocks the release of some case information that the governor wanted. The governor has sued the Workers’ Compensation Commission in the state Supreme Court to force the release of information about how much money commissioners are giving out.

“We’ve asked the commission to follow the law and provide us with information to ensure the law is being complied with,” Sawyer said.

The commission has seven members appointed by the governor. It hears disputes between workers who claim they were hurt on the job and their employers.

Companies, which must buy insurance to cover the cost of workers’ on-the-job injuries, have complained about rising premiums. Sanford’s orders could have saved companies money by limiting the amount of money given out for some claims.

A lawyer representing the injured workers in the federal lawsuit say the governor is trying to force commissioners to issue rulings he agrees with or face the threat of being replace on the panel.

“This was an improper attempt to influence the commission,” said Greenville attorney Kathryn Williams. “This goes to the foundation of our whole system of justice for workers’ compensation claims.”

Sawyer denied the allegations.

Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com

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