Friday, October 31, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
Daniel Scott Gibson vs. SCDMV

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Daniel Scott Gibson
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
n/a

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

ORDER

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

THIS MATTER is an appeal by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (“Department”) from a Final Order and Decision of the South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings (“DMVH”). The DMVH’s Final Order and Decision was issued following an administrative hearing held pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2006). The Department contends that the reduction of the Habitual Offender suspension of Respondent Daniel Scott Gibson (“Respondent”) based on good cause is clearly erroneous or is arbitrary or capricious or is characterized by an abuse of discretion. The Administrative Law Court (“ALC” or “Court”) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Upon consideration of the briefs, the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is reversed as set forth below.

background

Between March 2000 and November 2002, Respondent was convicted three times for reckless driving violations falling within the scope of S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020(a). On February 2, 2003, Respondent was adjudicated a “habitual offender” pursuant to section 56-1-1020, and, in accordance with section 56-1-1090(a) (Supp. 2006), his driver’s license was suspended for a five-year period beginning February 2, 2003 and ending February 2, 2008. Despite the habitual offender suspension, Respondent was involved in a Reportable Accident while driving in June 2003 and was also cited for Disobeying an Official Traffic Device in July 2005.

On March 30, 2007, pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2006), Respondent filed a petition with the DMVH for a reduction of his habitual offender suspension. In the petition, Respondent indicated that the reduction was needed so that he could drive himself to work and his children to school when his wife was unable to do so. Along with his petition, Respondent submitted to the DMVH a copy of his ten year driving record. In addition to the aforementioned offenses, Respondent’s driving record also contains numerous other safety violations, which include: four (4) Reportable Accidents, three (3) Speeding offenses (which includes one occasion of driving 70 m.p.h. in a 40 m.p.h. speed zone), Careless and Negligent Driving, Disobeying an Official Traffic Device, Operating an unsafe vehicle, and several suspensions for Failure to Pay Traffic Ticket.

The DMVH notified the parties than an administrative hearing regarding Respondent’s petition would be held on April 23, 2007. On March 29, 2007, the Department filed an Objection To Request For Reduction of Habitual Offender Suspension, that stated S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2006) provided it the authority to determine the guidelines for granting sentence reductions, as set forth in Policy VS-001. The DMV cited Guideline (B)(4)(c) and stated that Respondent was not eligible for a reduction because of his habitual suspension violations.

The hearing was held, as scheduled, on April 23, 2007. At the hearing, Respondent appeared with his attorney and a witness. Respondent testified about the circumstances surrounding the two violations that occurred during his habitual offender suspension and acknowledged that he was violating the law. Respondent concluded his testimony by indicating that he paid his driver’s license reinstatement fees and that he fulfilled all the other requirements of his suspension except for waiting out the remainder of the term of the suspension. The DMVH hearing office asked Respondent a rhetorical question regarding these points and stated that he had no further questions for the Respondent. Respondent’s manager testified that a suspension reduction would improve Respondent’s employment situation.

On April 27, 2007, the DMVH hearing officer issued a Final Order and Decision in which he ordered that Respondent’s habitual offender suspension be reduced. The Department now appeals.

ISSUE ON APPEAL

1. Did the Hearing Officer err in determining that the Respondent had made a showing of good cause?

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(A) (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). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2006) (directing Administrative Law Judges to conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in Section 1-23-380(A)). 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).

A decision is supported by “substantial evidence” when the record as a whole allows reasonable minds to reach the same conclusion reached by the agency. Bilton v. Best Western Royal Motor Lodge, 282 S.C. 634, 641, 321 S.E.2d 63, 68 (Ct. App. 1984). A decision will not be set aside simply because reasonable minds may differ on the judgment. Lark, 276 S.C. at 136, 276 S.E.2d 304, 307. The fact that the record, when considered as a whole, presents the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent the agency’s findings from being supported by substantial evidence. Waters v. S.C. Land Resources Conservation Comm’n, 321 S.C. 219, 226, 467 S.E.2d 913, 917 (1996); Grant v. S.C. Coastal Council, 319 S.C. 348, 353, 461 S.E.2d 388, 391 (1995).

In applying the substantial evidence rule, the factual findings of the administrative agency are presumed to be correct. Rodney v. Michelin Tire Co., 320 S.C. 515, 519, 466 S.E.2d 357, 359 (1996) (citing Kearse v. State Health and Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 318 S.C. 198, 200, 456 S.E.2d 892, 893 (1995)). The party challenging an agency action has the burden of proving convincingly that the agency’s decision is unsupported by substantial evidence. Waters, 321 S.C. at 226, 467 S.E.2d at 917.

DISCUSSION

Good Cause

State policy maximizes highway safety by denying driving privileges to those who demonstrate repeated indifference to the safety of others as well as disrespect for the laws of the State. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1010. Under S.C. Code Ann. §56-1-1100 it is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to operate a motor vehicle in this state while under an habitual offender suspension. Notwithstanding the foregoing, under section 56-1-1090, the State has seen fit to allow the reduction of an habitual offender suspension from five years to two years for “good cause shown.”

No clearly objective standard of what constitutes “good cause” is found, but South Carolina law suggests that the facts must extend beyond those that are merely personal in nature and common to the population in general (italicized portion added by this Court). See Faile v. South Carolina Employment Sec. Commission, 267 S.C. 536, 541-542 (1976) (finding that the meaning of “good cause” within the provisions of S.C. Unemployment Compensation Law did not contemplate benefits for an employee that was compelled to quit her job solely based on personal circumstances.); see also Ex parte Capital U-Drive-It, 369 S.C. 1, 13 (2006) (finding that appellant did not establish good cause to keep his family court records sealed where he claimed the records contained extremely personal, private, and confidential matters.). Determining whether good cause is shown involves a balancing of the needs of the parties as they weigh against public policy. See Doe v. Ward Firm, P.A., 353 S.C. 509, 514 (2003) (finding good cause to examine the medical records of the biological parents based on the compelling needs of the adopted child, and by balancing the privacy rights of the parties against the best interest of the child).

Ultimately, the finding of good cause, or lack thereof, must be made by the Court on a case by case basis.[1]

Here, Respondent Gibson advances as “good cause” personal needs (driving child to day care, getting to work and needs of his job) that could be argued in similar cases by most other citizens in his age group.

Respondent’s driving record evidences a history of disrespect of the laws of the State and the safety of other drivers. Prior to being adjudicated a habitual offender, Respondent was involved in four (4) Reportable Accidents, cited for speeding three (3) times – on one occasion Respondent was driving 70 mph in a 40 mph zone, Careless and Negligent Driving, Disobeying an Official Traffic Device, Operating an unsafe vehicle, and several suspensions for Failure to Pay Traffic Ticket. After his habitual offender suspension commenced, Respondent was convicted of driving offenses on two separate occasions - once for a Reportable Accident and once for Disobeying an Official Traffic Device. Most disconcerting and indicative of Respondent’s history of offending the laws of the State, is the evidence in the record of his attempt to obstruct justice. The South Carolina Traffic Collision Report for the Reportable Accident occurring on June 16, 2003, indicated that Respondent and his wife attempted to further disobey and evade the law by driving their cars to another location to fictitiously report another accident in order to justify the damage.

After reviewing the record in its entirety, no conclusion can be drawn other than : (a) no “good cause” was shown that would support a suspension reduction; and, (b) that the finding that Respondent Gibson showed good cause is clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; and, (c) that no reasonable person would find “good cause” based on the facts presented here and that the decision is arbitrary and capricious and characterized by an abuse of discretion.

ORDER

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is REVERSED and the habitual offender suspension of Respondent Gibson reinstated.

AND IT IS SO ORDERED.

________________________

John D. McLeod

Administrative Law Judge

November 28, 2007

Columbia, South Carolina



[1] Because each case will turn on its own facts, readers should not attempt to divine any precedent from this Order.


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