OF THE CASE
matter is an appeal by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (the “Department”)
from an Order that was issued by Administrative Hearing Officer Robert F.
Harley, Jr. (“AHO Harley”) of the South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings
(“DMVH”). The Order was issued following an administrative hearing held by Administrative
Hearing Officer Kevin Patterson (“AHO Patterson”) pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. §
56-5-2951(B)(2) (Supp. 2004). The Department contends that AHO Harley had no
authority to issue his Order. The ALC has jurisdiction to hear this matter
pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Upon review of this matter,
AHO Harley’s Order is vacated.
On December 4, 2005, Respondent Mark Edward White
(“White”) was arrested for driving under the influence. In connection with the
arrest, White’s driver’s license was suspended pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. §
56-5-2951(A) (Supp. 2004) for refusing to submit to chemical testing.
Thereafter, pursuant to Section 56-5-2951(B)(2), White requested an administrative
hearing to challenge the suspension. The Department received White’s request
on December 28, 2005. The very next day, the Department issued a “Notice of
Hearing” that stated that the hearing would be held on January 17, 2006. The
hearing was held, as scheduled, on January 17, 2006 by AHO Patterson. On February 17, 2006, AHO Patterson issued
a Final Order and Decision sustaining the suspension of White’s driver’s
license. Thereafter, on March 1, 2006, AHO Harley issued, sua sponte,
an Order that stated: “As a result of the court ruling by the South Carolina
Court of Appeals in Starnes v. South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, the suspension of your driver’s license is hereby rescinded.”
AHO Harley have the authority to issue his Order?
STANDARD OF REVIEW
DMVH is authorized by law to determine contested cases arising from the
Department. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Therefore, the
DMVH is an “agency” under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-310(2) (2005). As such, the APA’s standard of review
governs appeals from decisions of the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. §
1-23-380 (Supp. 2006); see also Byerly Hosp. v. S.C. State Health & Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 319 S.C. 225, 229, 460 S.E.2d 383, 385
(1995). The standard used by appellate bodies, including the ALC, to review
agency decisions is provided by S.C. Code Ann. §1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006).
This section provides:
The court may not
substitute its judgment for the judgment of the agency as to the weight of the
evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency
or remand the case for further proceedings. The court may reverse or modify
the decision [of the agency] if substantial rights of the appellant have been
prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or
violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
upon unlawful procedure;
by other error of law;
erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the
whole record; or
or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted
exercise of discretion.
S.C. Code Ann. §
1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006).
The Department argues that AHO Harley had no authority
to issue his Order. For the following reasons, I agree.
First, the record demonstrates that AHO Patterson was
assigned to this matter, presided at the underlying hearing, and issued a Final
Order and Decision. There is nothing in the record that indicates that this
matter was ever transferred to AHO Harley. Therefore, AHO Harley had no
authority to issue his Order. See ALC Rule 9 (“Upon assignment of a
case, the administrative law judge shall rule on all motions, preside at
the contested case hearing, rule on the admissibility of evidence, require the
parties to submit briefs when appropriate, issue orders and rulings to insure
the orderly conduct of the proceedings and issue the final order.”) (emphasis
Second, AHO Harley’s Order effectively reversed AHO
Patterson’s Final Order and Decision. It is well settled in South Carolina
that one judge may not overrule another judge of the same court. Charleston
County Dep’t of Social Services v. Father, Stepmother, and Mother, 317 S.C.
283, 288, 454 S.E.2d 307, 310 (1995); see also Tisdale v. American
Life Ins. Co., 216 S.C. 10, 13, 56 S.E.2d 580, 581 (1949) (holding that it
is “axiomatic” that a Circuit Judge does not have the power to reverse the ruling
of another Circuit Judge); Dinkins v. Robbins, 203 S.C. 199, 202, 26
S.E.2d 689, 690 (1943) (“The rule is well settled that the prior order of one
Circuit Judge may not be modified by the subsequent order of another Circuit
Judge, except in cases when the right to do so has been reserved to the
succeeding Judge, when it is allowed by rule of court or statute, or when the
subsequent order does not alter or substantially affect the ruling or decision
represented by the previous order.”).
Third, there is nothing in the record that indicates
that White ever moved to have this case reconsidered. Therefore, because more
than ten days had elapsed since the issuance of AHO Patterson’s Final Order and
Decision, on the date of AHO Harley’s Order, no DMVH hearing officer, including
AHO Patterson himself, had the authority to issue an order amending AHO
Patterson’s Final Order and Decision. See Heins v. Heins, 344
S.C. 146, 543 S.E.2d 224 (Ct. App. 2001) (ruling that, pursuant to Rule 59(e),
SCRCP, a family court judge does not have the authority to alter or amend a
judgment, sua sponte, once the judgment is more than 10-days-old). Thus, AHO Harley’s Order was invalid for this reason as well.
Because AHO Harley’s Order was a nullity, this Court
need not consider its merits. See Dinkins, 203 S.C. at 203, 26
S.E.2d at 690 (reversing order of Circuit Judge because it substantially
altered a previous order of another Circuit Judge despite finding that the order
would have otherwise been “fully warranted”); see also Futch v.
McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 613, 518 S.E.2d 591,
598 (1999) (noting that an appellate court need not address remaining issues
when a prior issue is dispositive). Furthermore, addressing the merits of AHO
Harley’s Order is also made unnecessary by the fact that this Court has previously
examined the merits of a virtually identical DMVH order. See S.C.
Dep’t of Motor Vehicles v. Boyle, 06-ALJ-21-0340-AP, 2006 WL 2827728 (Admin.
Law Ct. September 11, 2006). For these reasons, this Court declines to consider
any of the other issues raised by this appeal.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that, to the extent
necessary to clear the Record, AHO Harley’s Order is VACATED; and
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that White’s driver’s
license be suspended in accordance with AHO Patterson’s Final Order and
Decision and S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2951 (Supp. 2004), except that White shall
receive credit for the number of days, if any, his license was suspended
pursuant to AHO Patterson’s Final Order and Decision prior to the date of this
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
John D. McLeod
April 4, 2007
Columbia, South Carolina