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Mental health workers not public officials

State loses case over legal protections for workers who enter prisons

By: Phillip Bantz//April 12, 2016

Mental health workers not public officials

State loses case over legal protections for workers who enter prisons

By: Phillip Bantz//April 12, 2016

State-employed mental health professionals who work in jails and prisons are exposed to some of the same occupational hazards as corrections officers, but a new appellate ruling gives guards greater protection.

The disparity surfaced in a South Carolina Court of Appeals decision that reversed a bipolar inmate’s conviction for threatening the life of a public official, a felony. The inmate, Anthony Bailey, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and five years of probation for telling state Department of Mental Health examiner Amy Cradock that she was on his kill list.

A unanimous three-judge panel for the appellate court held in an April 6 opinion that Cradock – and all other state-designated mental health examiners – are actually public employees in the eyes of the law.

And threatening a public employee is only a misdemeanor.

The state Attorney General’s Office had urged the appellate panel to treat mental health workers who enter jails at the state’s behest the same as corrections officers, who are legally classified as public officials. To conclude otherwise “would lead to an absurd and unjust result,” Susannah Cole, an assistant attorney general, wrote in the state’s brief.

She added that the plain language of the applicable state law and “compelling policy reasons to protect those at risk who serve the public” supported the state’s argument against reversing Charleston County Circuit Judge R. Knox McMahon’s determination that mental health professionals were public officials.

But in rejecting the state’s argument, Court of Appeals Judge H. Bruce Williams wrote for the panel that “the two positions [mental health worker and jail guard] are inherently dissimilar under the law.”

“Consequently,” he added, “we believe public policy concerns do not support a finding that [Craddock] was a public official.”

State law defines a public official as “an elected or appointed official of the United States or of this State or of a county, municipality, or the political subdivision of this State.” Meanwhile, a public employee is defined as “a person employed by the State, a county, a municipality, a school district, or a political subdivision of this state.”

The state planned to petition the Court of Appeals for a rehearing, according to Hayley Thrift, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Kathrine Hudgins, a Columbia-based appellate defender who argued Bailey’s case, declined an interview request.

She wrote in her brief that mental health professionals have a duty to individual patients, unlike corrections officers, who serve entire jail populations, and asserted that the “differing duties provide a rational basis upon which to treat correctional officers differently than mental health professionals.”

Hudgins and Cole both cited the state Supreme Court’s decision in 1997’s State v. Bridgers to support their opposing arguments. In that case, the high court held that it was inconsistent to classify highway patrol officers as public employees while deeming city police officers to be public officials.

The Bridgers court used four non-dispositive factors to distinguish between public officials and public employees. The state’s high court also held in a 1994 decision, State v. Thrift, that “the greater the duty to the public at large, the more likely it is that the individual will be a public official.”

In Bailey, the appellate panel found that the state failed to prove two of the Bridgers factors: that state law does not dictate the duties of a mental health examiner and that the position does not require the exercise of sovereign power.

Cradock met the other two factors, which required that her position and its qualifications be created by the General Assembly.

But Williams wrote in the decision that the panel found the state’s “failure to prove the final two Bridgers factors significant.”

“We are also unable to identify a sound policy basis for expanding the definition of ‘public official’ to cover individuals in Cradock’s position,” he added. “Even though Cradock’s duties were arguably in furtherance of public policy, as expressed by our General Assembly in the relevant statutes, these duties were not directed to the public at large.”

The eight-page decision is State v. Bailey (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-036-16). A digest of the opinion is available at

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

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