In a blistering decision overturning a judge’s decision, the S.C. Supreme Court said a judge behaved abusively while ruling on a worker’s compensation case and was not truthful in a sworn statement she submitted.
The high court’s decision, made Wednesday and signed by all five justices, gave new life to worker’s compensation claims by former S.C. Highway Patrol trooper Scott Ledford, who has for years been seeking what his lawyers call fair compensation for career-ending injuries suffered in an on-duty motorcycle crash in a high-speed chase in Horry County.
The decision also shone a spotlight on the conduct of Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Susan Barden, whose decisions and actions in Ledford’s case were condemned by all five justices.
“Commissioner Barden’s conduct was quite simply unacceptable and offensive to the ideals of a fair and impartial judiciary,” the justices wrote in the six -page decision.
“Commissioner Barden’s behavior in this case would undoubtedly lead one to reasonably question her impartiality,” the justices wrote.
Moreover, in providing information for Ledford’s case, justices said Barden had submitted a false affidavit to the court — an action justices deemed “appalling.”
In a statement to The State newspaper, Barden disputed the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying it didn’t have all the facts when it made its decision.
Although her title is “commissioner,” Barden and six other Workers’ Compensation commissioners come under the state Judicial Code of Conduct and are considered to be judges. Commissioners, who hear state employees’ claims for compensation for workplace injuries, are appointed by the governor, but have to be approved by the State Senate. Commissioners’ make $163,160 a year.
Ledford’s case involved a 2014 decision by Barden to deny the former trooper compensation for injuries received in a 2012 motorcycle crash, as well as for earlier injuries in a training accident. Barden also ruled that Ledford had received too much compensation in the past and that he was the one who owed the state money.
Before Barden made that ruling, she spoke on the phone with Hood Temple, Ledford’s lawyer, and the opposing lawyer in the case, Sarah Sutusky, who represented the Department of Public Safety.
After that call, Temple called for Barden to recuse (excuse) herself from the case. In a legal filing, Temple said that Barden during the call had threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case were not settled and “indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record,” the Supreme Court decision said. Barden also charged Ledford with engaging in “creative accounting” in his tax returns, the decision said.
Barden also said she would refer Ledford’s case to the State Attorney General for criminal prosecution unless he accepted a “minimal” settlement, the high court said.
Barden refused to recuse herself from the case, denied making threats to Ledford’s lawyer and issued a ruling that denied all compensation for his injuries.
“In her order, Commissioner Barden impugned Ledford’s credibility regarding his ability to work (and) the extent of his injuries ...,” the high court said.
In April when the case was being argued before the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Don Beatty, spotted Sutusky — the third party to the phone call between Barden and Temple — in the courtroom. Beatty halted the argument and asked Sutusky about her memory of the disputed phone call.
Sutusky confirmed Temple’s version of events.
“We commend Ms. Sutusky for her candor...,” the high court wrote.
Temple told The State, “you can’t imagine how frustrating this has been for me.” Chief Justice Beatty was the first person in six years to ask Sutusky what was said on the phone call between Temple and Barden.
“It wasn’t my word against Barden’s,” said Temple. “Sarah Sutusky was on the phone call too.”
Temple, who has worked on Ledford’s case more than six years told The State his reputation suffered after word of Barden’s “false affidavit” spread around the state’s legal community. He had to spend his own money to hire lawyers and an accountant to prove his innocence and cull Ledford’s tax returns to show they were correct, Temple said.
But most importantly, Temple said, the Supreme Court’s decision was a big win for Ledford, a decorated trooper who was on the Patrol’s ACE - Aggressive Criminal Enforcement - team, and whose injuries forced him out of his job.
“This is a man who loved law enforcement and worked mightily to provide for his family,” Temple said.
Barden emailed The State the following statement: “It is my belief that certain information was withheld from the Supreme Court for its deliberations, including other documents as well, which my ethical constraints do not allow me to disclose at the present time. This matter was also reviewed at my last Senate confirmation hearing in 2016, at which time I provided exculpatory evidence as to these allegations. As I recall, I was unanimously confirmed by the Senate for my third term ending 2022.”
Kevin Holmes, who represents Temple along with Columbia attorney Desa Ballard, said in an interview Temple faced a long and uncomfortable battle in his challenge to Barden. “No lawyer wants to file a motion to recuse a judge. That is a way to really tick a judge off.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling does not prevent Barden from continuing to hear cases. It is possible its Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates alleged wrong-doing by lawyers and judges, could examine Barden’s conduct. Such investigations are usually confidential until formal charges, if any, are filed.