Sabb v. South Carolina State University

Decision Date15 July 2002
Docket NumberNo. 25496.,25496.
Citation350 S.C. 416,567 S.E.2d 231
PartiesEarline C. SABB, Respondent, v. SOUTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Stephen P. Groves, Sr., Wilbur E. Johnson, Nancy Bloodgood, and Stephen L. Brown, all of Young Clement, Rivers & Tisdale, LLP, of Charleston, for appellant.

John F. Koon, of Koon and Cook, P.A.; and Richard A. McDowell, Sr., of McDowell Law Firm, LLC; of Columbia; and Elizabeth Cook, of Breland & Bernstein, LLP; of Greenville, for respondent.

MOORE, Justice:

We agreed to certify this case from the Court of Appeals to determine the question of whether the exclusivity provision of the Workers' Compensation Act is procedural in nature or whether it involves subject matter jurisdiction. After finding the exclusivity provision does not involve subject matter jurisdiction, we affirm the trial court on the issues raised by appellant.

PROCEDURAL FACTS

Respondent (hereinafter referred to as Sabb) brought suit against appellant asserting claims of negligent supervision of an employee and negligent retention of an employee, as well as other claims.

Upon the trial's conclusion, the jury returned a verdict for Sabb in the amount of $200,000 in actual damages. Appellant (hereinafter referred to as University) appealed to the Court of Appeals.

We certified the case, upon request by the Court of Appeals, to determine the question of whether the exclusivity provision of the Workers' Compensation Act involves subject matter jurisdiction.

ISSUES
I. Whether the exclusivity provision1 of the Workers' Compensation Act is procedural or whether it involves subject matter jurisdiction?
II. Whether the trial court should have granted appellant's motion for a directed verdict and/or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict?
III. Whether the trial court erred by allowing evidence regarding a co-employee of Sabb?
ISSUE I

Because Sabb's claims, as employee of University, arose out of and in the course of her employment, the Workers' Compensation Act (the Act) provides the exclusive remedy for her. See Dickert v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 311 S.C. 218, 428 S.E.2d 700 (1993) (the Act provides exclusive remedy for employees who sustain work-related injury; claim of negligence for failure to exercise reasonable care in selection, retention, and supervision of co-employee is covered by the Act); Stokes v. First Nat'l Bank, 306 S.C. 46, 410 S.E.2d 248 (1991) (mental injury arising from non-physical stress is within the Act); S.C.Code Ann. § 42-1-310 (Supp.2000) ("Every employer and employee ... shall be presumed to have accepted the provisions of [the Act] respectively to pay and accept compensation for personal injury ... arising out of and in the course of the employment and shall be bound thereby.").

Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong. Dove v. Gold Kist, Inc., 314 S.C. 235, 442 S.E.2d 598 (1994). Sabb's tort action is clearly a part of the general class of cases which the court of common pleas has the jurisdiction to hear. Accordingly, the trial court in this case had subject matter jurisdiction under the Gold Kist definition.2 However, we acknowledge, while the trial court has subject matter jurisdiction over tort claims, certain cases may be taken from the trial court's original jurisdiction by the General Assembly. We find the General Assembly has vested the Commission with exclusive original jurisdiction over the types of claims made by Sabb, such that the circuit court was divested of its original jurisdiction over Sabb's claims.3

Therefore, the Commission had exclusive original jurisdiction to hear Sabb's claims. However, because University failed to raise the exclusivity provision as a defense to Sabb's tort action on appeal, that challenge is waived. We reiterate the exclusivity provision does not involve subject matter jurisdiction. We now address University's issues on appeal.

UNIVERSITY'S APPEAL
FACTS

Sabb, after working for University for five years, joined University's campus police department in 1984. In 1989, she became a certified training officer and Paul White became chief of the department.

Within three weeks of White becoming chief, Sabb's training duties were terminated and given to another officer who was not a certified training officer. Sabb filed several grievances against Chief White. For instance, when Sabb requested light duty due to an arthritic hip, Chief White informed her she would be required to take annual or sick leave. Sabb filed a grievance with University, but later withdrew the grievance when the Vice President Provost had the policy rescinded in writing. Chief White then placed Sabb on light duty working the midnight shift as a dispatcher.

In 1991, Sabb signed a petition circulated by officers within the department concerning problems with Chief White. Due to the petition, University appointed a committee to investigate. The Committee found: (1) over half of the police personnel signed a statement requesting the chiefs removal; (2) as to the chief's revelation that he had no idea a problem existed, the Committee found the small size of the department made it difficult for anyone to work in such a hostile environment without being aware of the tensions that existed; (3) the chief had an apparent inability to assess problems when they arose and take corrective action to prevent escalation of the problems; and (4) the supervising staff had engaged in gross unprofessional behavior by expressing happiness at the chief's predicament.

The Committee recommended that Chief White participate in a mandatory management and leadership improvement plan for 120 days; and that his failure to participate in the plan would constitute grounds for removal from the department. It was also recommended that the supervisory staff undergo extensive training pertaining to personnel procedures, interpersonal skills development, and shared departmental decision making. The Committee recommended both Chief White and his supervisory staff, of which Sabb was a member, attend workshops to learn about institutional policies and procedures pertaining to discipline.

Sabb testified Chief White did not accomplish the above requirements, that University did not ensure compliance with the report, and that conditions did not improve within the department. Further, as a result of the petition, Sabb testified Chief White became openly hostile towards her.

In 1994, University held a meeting in which it was announced University would be investigating the department. Following the meeting, Sabb testified Chief White had his own meeting where he singled Sabb out and told her, as chief, he reserved the right to make any decisions he wanted. A week later, Chief White was removed from the police department for a reason unrelated to the investigation, and Lieutenant Wilson became the chief.

Once Chief Wilson assumed his position, he made Sabb the Acting Lieutenant of Operations which placed her in charge of the entire operations of the department. However, when Chief White returned as chief less than a year later, he removed Sabb as Acting Lieutenant of Operations.

Subsequently, Sabb attempted to discipline Sergeant Pamela Gissentanna. Chief White refused to sign the discipline form; however, Chief Wilson (who remained chief along with Chief White for a period of time following Chief White's return) signed the form recommending suspension. Sabb testified that Gissentanna was never suspended. As a result, Sabb filed grievances with University regarding this matter and on the ground Chief White had removed her as Acting Lieutenant of Operations. The complaints were found to be non-grievable.

In another matter, while Sabb was on sick leave, Chief White eliminated her training duties and gave her the midnight shift as a patrol officer during a meeting she could not attend. Sabb stated that by becoming a patrol officer she was resuming the duties with which she commenced her police work over fifteen years earlier. University did not respond to her grievance regarding this matter.

Sabb filed another grievance on the basis she was denied a promotional opportunity when Chief White placed a co-employee in the position of Lieutenant of Operations without advertising the position per University requirements. University responded, in a letter to Sabb, that the position had not yet been established and the co-employee was temporarily assigned the Operations responsibilities. University informed Sabb that when the Lieutenant of Operations position was established, University job posting guidelines would be followed. As a result, University denied her grievance request because she had not been denied a promotional opportunity. In the presentation of her case, Sabb introduced a newspaper article that was published two days after the University's denial of her grievance request. This article announced that the co-employee "was named lieutenant of operations." Sabb testified, to her knowledge, the position was never posted as an opening and there were no interviews for the position.

Sabb testified, as a result of Chief White's actions, she had an escalated blood pressure, interference with her sleep, and panic attacks. She called University's President and related her health problems. She also told University she feared for her life because Chief White had attempted to fight her.

After consulting with her physician, Dr. Ester Hare, Sabb requested a transfer to another department. At the time she requested the transfer, she was on bed rest and heavy medication.

Following her transfer, Sabb informed University she wished to keep her police credentials because she intended to return to the police department. However, her police certification was returned when her change in status form was sent to the Criminal Justice Academy because...

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