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Hernandez-Zuniga v. Tickle - 374 S.C. 235, 647 S.E.2d 691 (Ct. App. 2007)

Rule:

Judicial review of a workers' compensation decision is governed by the substantial evidence rule of the South Carolina Administrative Procedures Act. However, if the factual issue before the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Commission involves a jurisdictional question, the appellate court's review is governed by the preponderance of evidence standard. Consequently, the appellate court's review is not bound by the Commission's findings of fact on which jurisdiction is based. A reviewing court has both the power and duty to review the entire record, find jurisdictional facts without regard to conclusions of the Commission on the issue, and decide the jurisdictional question in accord with the preponderance of evidence. The appellate court can find facts in accordance with the preponderance of evidence when determining a jurisdictional question in a workers' compensation case. Where a jurisdictional issue is raised, the appellate court must review the record and make its own determination whether the preponderance of evidence supports the Commission's factual findings bearing on that issue.

Facts:

Claimant sustained his injury on May 10, 2003 when he fell from a ladder while painting for his employer, Tickle. He sought temporary disability benefits and medical treatment under the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Act (Act). Tickle claimed he was not subject to the Act because he regularly employed less than four workers. The hearing commissioner found that the Claimant did not meet his burden of proving the Tickle "regularly" employed four or more employees. Accordingly, the hearing commissioner ruled Claimant was not entitled to benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act because Tickle did not regularly employ four (4) or more employees as required by section 42-1-150 of the South Carolina Code of Laws (Supp. 2006). Consequently, the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Commission lacked jurisdiction to address the claim. The Appellate Panel affirmed the hearing commissioner's ruling and adopted his Decision and Order in its entirety. The circuit court affirmed.

Issue:

Did the Claimant demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that Tickle regularly employed four or more employees and was subject to the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Act?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court held that the statutory language of the Workers’ Compensation Act unequivocally exempted employers who did not regularly employ four or more employees. According to the Court, the definition of “regularly employed” was employment of the same number of persons with some constancy throughout a relevant time period. The Court further averred that the relevant time period should be identified by considering: (i) the employer's established mode of operation; (ii) whether the employer generally employs the jurisdictional number at any time during his operation, and (iii) the period during which employment was definite and recurrent rather than occasional, sporadic, or indefinite. Taking these interpretations into consideration, the Court held that in the case at bar, Tickle regularly employed less than four workers during the identified relevant time period; thus, Tickle was exempt from the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Act when Claimant sustained his injury. The Court concluded that the Appellate Panel of the Workers' Compensation Commission did not have jurisdiction to consider his claim.

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