South Carolina Governor Backs off Workers’ Comp Payment Limit Fight

August 6, 2008

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford backed away from efforts to force the state Workers’ Compensation Commission to accept new injury payment standards, accepting a settlement agreement that would end months of legal wrangling if South Carolina’s highest court approves the deal.

“We’re pleased to be moving forward with the commission on a mutually agreeable settlement, and we hope the court gives it favorable consideration,” Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said of the deal reached July 17.

Sawyer and commission executive director Gary Thibault wouldn’t comment on the details of the settlement agreement, which the state’s high court must now decide whether to accept.

The dispute arose from Sanford’s actions last year after the Legislature overhauled the state’s workers’ compensation laws. During debate, legislators twice rejected attempts to impose guidelines of the American Medical Association in making injury award decisions.

Last fall, Sanford issued executive orders for the commission to use the AMA-backed guidelines, or similar ones — before ultimately asking the Supreme Court to decide the matter. Sanford saw himself acting to clarify the law, while the commission saw him trying to impose a new interpretation of the law.

Sanford had argued the AMA standards were a way to cut workers’ compensation costs by linking awards to objective criteria while reducing attorney involvement and their fees.

But opponents countered that those standards don’t consider the type of work people perform, only a body’s physical limitations after injury. For instance, they say, an engineer’s ability to use her hands is less of an impairment than the same injury for a carpenter.

In the settlement, Sanford concedes commissioners obey judicial rules and “have the duty to be independent, impartial and faithful to the law and not consider communications” outside of the people involved in their cases. It also says Sanford and the commission “recognize that the statutes and regulations of South Carolina cannot be changed” without the Legislature acting.

The fracas began in September 2007 when Sanford issued an executive order that said the Workers’ Compensation Commission was part of the executive branch of government and telling commission members that they had to use objective criteria like AMA guidelines in award decisions. He also told commissioners to report on how they had complied with his order every three months. He followed that up with two executive orders clarifying the first.

But the commission refused to go along with the executive order, saying it was not something approved by lawmakers.

Meanwhile, a handful of workers’ comp claimants filed a federal lawsuit saying Sanford’s actions stood to intrude on their privacy and how their cases were handled.

Sanford issued a fourth executive order clarifying he had no intention of affecting their privacy and filed his own lawsuit before the Supreme Court.

The settlement shows Sanford “doesn’t get to write and interpret the law. He only gets to enforce the law,” said Belinda Ellison, a Lexington lawyer and president of Injured Workers Advocates, a group opposing Sanford’s workers’ comp efforts.

“There’s no victory in his attempt to dismiss his own frivolous litigation,” Ellison said.

While Sanford may have settled with the Workers’ Compensation Commission, the individuals who brought the original federal lawsuit haven’t agreed to a settlement and want the Supreme Court to appoint a mediator, according to their lawyer, Thomas Ervin. They’re still pursuing the federal case.

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