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A Remand Order Under the APA Is Not a Final Judgment

In Bone v. U.S. Food Service, the supreme court held that “final judgment” as used in S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-390 (Supp. 2012) means “something that finally disposes of the whole subject matter of the action or terminates the action, leaving nothing to be done but to execute the judgment.”

Cathy Bone power washed and cleaned the inside of trucks for United States Food Service.  On June 26, 2007, she allegedly injured her back while lifting two pallets inside a trailer to clean underneath them.  She did not report the injury to her employer at the time.  On July 3rd, Bone was late for work because one of her car tires was flat.  When she got to work, she was crying and complained about her back being hurt on June 26th.  Her supervisors denied her claim for workers’ compensation because they believed the injury occurred when the tire was being changed and not on June 26th as she alleged. 

Bone filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Commission.  A single commissioner denied her claim, finding that she failed to meet her burden of proof to collect workers’ compensation.  Bone appealed to the circuit court.  The circuit court reversed the commissioner’s determination, holding that, as a matter of law, that there was no evidence to rebut her claim that the injury occurred on June 26th, and the circuit court remanded her case back to the Commission.

Before the Commission reheard the claim, U.S. Food Service and its insurer appealed the circuit court’s decision.  The court of appeals dismissed the claim because the circuit court’s remand order was not a final judgment as required by section 1-23-390.

In a 3-2 decision, the supreme court affirmed the court of appeals’ decision.  Section 1-23-390 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) states:

“An aggrieved party may obtain a review of a final judgment of the circuit court or the court of appeals pursuant to this article by taking an appeal in the manner provided by the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules as in other civil cases.”

The supreme court focused on the term “final judgment” to determine whether a remand order from a circuit court is immediately appealable.  The court relied on its decision in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority v. S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control, 387 S.C. 265, 692 S.E.2d 894 (2010), where it stated “[a] final judgment disposes of the whole subject matter of the action or terminates the particular proceeding or action, leaving nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined.” Id. at 267, 692 S.E.2d at 895 (citation omitted).

The court also said that “the general appealability statute allowing appeals from decisions ‘involving the merits’ has no place in the APA, which established a different appellate scheme.”  The court held that because the remand only required the parties to reappear in front of the Commission, the circuit court’s order was not a final decision.

Justice Hearn wrote a dissenting opinion, which Justice Kittredge joined.  The dissent would have held that “whether an appellate decision is a ‘final judgment’ eligible for further review under [S]ection 1-23-390 is whether the order finally determines an issue affecting a substantial right on the merits.”  According to the dissent, the remand order did just that because both parties agreed that on remand, “the full commission will have no alternative but to make an award to Bone.”  Thus, the circuit court reached the ultimate issue of the case.  In addition, because Bone was permitted to appeal the same exact issue of whether the claim was compensable, the dissent would permit the employer to appeal the issue too.

Statutory Change:  Appeals from the Workers’ Compensation Commission are now directly appealable to the court of appeals.  S.C. Code Ann. § 42-17-60 (Supp. 2012).  This appeal went to the circuit court first because the alleged injury occurred on June 26, 2007, while the statute does not apply to injuries arising before July 1, 2007.

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