Monday, October 20, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Sean Martin

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Sean Martin
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
06-ALJ-21-0559-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

FINAL ORDER

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

This appeal by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (Department) arises from an Order of Dismissal of the South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings (DMVH) issued following a hearing held pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-351 (2006). The Department claims that the DMVH hearing officer erroneously rescinded the suspensions of Respondent’s driving and registration privileges. The Administrative Law Court (ALC) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Upon review of this matter, the DMVH’s Amended Order of Dismissal is reversed, and this matter is remanded to the DMVH for a new hearing.

BACKGROUND

On March 17, 2006, the Department sent Respondent written notice that, as a result of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on March 8, 2005, his driving and registration privileges in South Carolina would be suspended pursuant to Section 56-9-351. Respondent requested a hearing to challenge the suspension, which was held on May 16, 2006. On May 16, 2006, the DMVH hearing officer issued an Order of Dismissal, pursuant to ALC Rule 23, in which he rescinded Respondent’s suspension. Specifically, the DMVH hearing officer found that “[t]here was no evidence/testimony corroborating that the Respondent’s vehicle had been involved in an accident/collision.” The Department appeals the DMVH’s Order of Dismissal.

ISSUE ON APPEAL

Did the DMVH hearing officer err by dismissing this case on the grounds that “[t]here was no testimony/evidence corroborating that the Respondent’s vehicle had been involved in an accident/collision”?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The 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).[1] 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 decisions are:

(a) in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;

(b) in excess of the statutory authority of the agency;

(c) made upon unlawful procedure;

(d) affected by other error of law;

(e) clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or

(f) arbitrary 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).

DISCUSSION

The statute at issue here, Section 56-9-351, provides:

Within sixty days of receipt of a report of a motor vehicle accident within this State which has resulted in bodily injury or death or damage to the property of any one person in the amount of two hundred dollars or more, the Department of Motor Vehicles shall suspend the license of each operator or driver if he is the owner of the motor vehicle involved in the accident and all registrations of each owner of a motor vehicle involved in the accident. If the operator or driver is a nonresident, the privilege of operating a motor vehicle within this State and the privilege of the use within this State of a motor vehicle owned by him is suspended unless the operator, driver or owner, or both, deposits security in a sum not less than two hundred dollars or an additional amount as the department may specify that will be sufficient to satisfy a judgment that may be recovered for damages resulting from the accident which may be recovered against the operator or owner. Notice of the suspension must be sent by the department to the operator and owner at least ten days before the effective date of the suspension and shall state the amount required as security.

S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-351 (2006). Here, the Department argues that the DMVH hearing officer erred by rescinding the suspensions of Respondent’s driving and registration privileges. Specifically, the Department argues that the hearing officer erred by shifting the burden of proof to the Department and failing to access appropriate documents. While I find those arguments unavailing for the same reasons fully set forth in numerous orders of the ALC in other cases where this issue has been raised, I find the matter must nonetheless be reversed based on the letter from Wilber & Associates as attorney for Motors Insurance Group for the insured Hampton Auto. This letter was contained in the file and clearly before the DMVH hearing officer. DMV’s file erroneously lists Wilber & Associates as attorneys for Martin, when they clearly were not but instead requested that the Department pursue suspension against his license and registration. Interestingly, the Department’s brief does not even argue this letter or mention it. Respondent has not retained counsel and has not filed a brief with this court.

This item in the Record clearly demonstrates that the DMVH received the letter on January 30, 2006, which showed that a vehicle belonging to Respondent had been involved in an accident on March 8, 2005 that caused $18,262.76 worth of damage that the insurance company had paid. The letter requests the Department to advise whether there was liability insurance and, if not, to proceed to suspend license and/or registration. Therefore, the DMVH hearing officer’s finding that “there was no evidence/testimony corroborating that the Respondent’s vehicle had been involved in an accident/collision” was clearly erroneous. While scant, this letter provides some evidence that the accident occurred, and that Sean Martin was the owner/driver, albeit the address provided for him on the letter is different from that provided on the notice and all other documents. However, at that point, the burden of proof shifted to Martin to prove, if he could, that he had not been involved in the accident at issue. The date of the accident on the letter is the same as the date of accident in the notice of suspension.

Accordingly, the DMVH’s Amended Order of Dismissal is reversed and, because this case was summarily dismissed without a full hearing, this matter is remanded to the DMVH for a new hearing.

ORDER

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the DMVH’s Amended Order of Dismissal is REVERSED, and that this matter is remanded to the DMVH for a new hearing.

AND IT IS SO ORDERED.

______________________________

JOHN D. GEATHERS

October 15, 2007 Administrative Law Judge

Columbia, South Carolina 1205 Pendleton Street, Suite 224

Columbia, South Carolina 29201-3731



[1] Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2006), administrative law judges must conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in Section 1-23-380(A).


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