Tuesday, October 21, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Chad Austin Gibson

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Chad Austin Gibson
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
07-ALJ-21-0384-AP

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”) issued July 12, 2007. 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. 2007). The Department contends that the DMVH Hearing Officer erroneously determined that Chad Austin Gibson (“Gibson”) had made a showing of “good cause” under S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090. The Administrative Law Court (“ALC”) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2007). Upon careful review of this matter, the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is affirmed.

background

In 2005, Gibson was found to be a “habitual offender” pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2006). In accordance with S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(a) (Supp. 2007), his driver’s license was suspended for a five-year period beginning April 17, 2005 and ending April 17, 2010. On October 1, 2005, six months after his habitual offender suspension had commenced, Gibson was charged with violation of S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-460 (2006) (Driving Under Suspension (“DUS”)). He was convicted of this violation on October 21, 2005.

In late 2005, the Department issued Department Policy VS-001, which laid out specific conditions required to obtain a reduction in a habitual offender’s suspension. VS-001 provides
that a reduction in the five-year suspension for habitual offenders will be granted if the following conditions have been met:

a.       The applicant must have served at least twenty-four months of the habitual offender suspension before submitting the application for reduction. Applications submitted sooner than twenty-four months will be returned.

b.      The applicant must not have been considered at any previous time for a reduction of habitual offender status.

c.       The applicant must not have driven a motor vehicle since the beginning date of the habitual offender suspension. NOTE: The applicant will have stated under oath that he/she has not driven at all during the habitual offender suspension. If a review of the driving record shows that s/he drove (e.g., a traffic ticket or accident report), the applicant will not be eligible for a reduction.

d.      The applicant must not have any other mandatory suspensions that have not yet reached their end dates, as recorded on the applicant’s driving record. (If the applicant remains suspended because of reinstatement fees or for manual suspensions that can be cleared at any time, those will not necessarily bar a reduction.)

e.       The applicant must never have had a prior habitual offender suspension.

f.        The applicant must have completed any ADSAP or other required alcohol or drug treatment program.

g.       The applicant must not have been charged with (and certainly not convicted of) any alcohol or drug violations during the habitual offender suspension period.

On April 4, 2007, pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2007), Gibson filed a petition with the DMVH for a reduction of his habitual offender suspension. Along with his petition, Gibson submitted to the DMVH a copy of his ten-year driving record, which revealed that Gibson had not been convicted of a motor vehicle violation since October 21, 2005, the date on which he was convicted of his October 1, 2005, DUS violation.

An administrative hearing regarding Gibson’s petition was held on May 14, 2007. On July 12, 2007, the DMVH Hearing Officer issued a Final Order and Decision in which she ordered that Gibson’s driver’s license be reinstated. Specifically, the DMVH Hearing Officer stated that the petitioner

is a volunteer Fire Fighter and seeking a career as a Fire Fighter in the future. Petitioner is certified in numerous fields related to fire fighting, such as, first responder, OSHA and hazardous material. . . . The Petitioner’s career development and compensation is being impacted with his lack of having a valid driver’s license. He has since become the hard working and law-abiding citizen that the State desires. . . .

The Department now appeals.


ISSUE ON APPEAL

Did the DMVH Hearing Officer err in finding that Gibson had shown good cause pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090 for a reduction in his five-year habitual offender suspension?

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. 2007). 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. 2007); 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. 2007). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2007) (directing administrative law judges to conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in § 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).

The DMVH Hearing Officer has the discretion to reduce the suspension of a habitual offender for good cause. See S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2007) (stating that the hearing officer “may” restore driving privileges for good cause shown). However, this discretion must be exercised within the confines of § 1-23-380(A)(5)(f). An abuse of discretion occurs when a decision is based upon an error of law, such as application of the wrong legal principle; or, when based upon factual conclusions, the ruling is without evidentiary support; or when the judge is vested with discretion, but the ruling reveals no discretion was exercised; or when the ruling does not fall within the range of permissible decisions applicable in a particular case. Ex Parte Capital U-Drive-It, Inc., 369 S.C. 1, 5, 630 S.E.2d 464, 467 (2006). A decision is arbitrary or capricious when no rational basis for the conclusion exists, when it is based on one’s will and not upon any course of reasoning and exercise of judgment. Converse Power Corp. v. S.C. Dep’t of Health and Envtl. Control, 350 S.C. 39, 564 S.E.2d 341 (Ct. App. 2002); Deese v. S.C. State Bd. of Dentistry, 286 S.C. 182, 184-85, 332 S.E.2d 539, 541 (Ct. App. 1985). A decision may be arbitrary or capricious when it is made at one’s pleasure without adequate determining principles, or is governed by no fixed rules or principles. Deese, 286 S.C. at 184-85, 332 S.E.2d at 341. Non-uniform, inconsistent, or selective application of authority can indicate arbitrariness. See Mungo v. Smith, 289 S.C. 560, 571, 347 S.E.2d 514, 521 (Ct. App. 1986).

DISCUSSION

S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) states in pertinent part:

[U]pon petition to the Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings and for good cause shown, the hearing officer may restore to the person the privilege to operate a motor vehicle in this State upon terms and conditions as the department may prescribe, subject to other provisions of law relating to the issuance of drivers’ licenses. The petition permitted by this item may be filed after two years have expired from the date of the decision of the department finding the person to be a[] habitual offender. At this time and after hearing, the hearing officer may reduce the five-year period of item (a) to a two-year period for good cause shown.

S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2007). The Department argues that, based on Gibson’s October 1, 2005, violation, the DMVH Hearing Officer’s reduction of Gibson’s habitual offender suspension improperly disregarded Section III(B)(4)(c) of Department Policy VS-001 and constituted error.

As this court has held in an en banc decision,[1] the DMVH is not bound to follow VS-001. S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles v. Cain, 06-ALJ-21-0790-AP (S.C. Admin. Law Ct., March 23, 2007). S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) provides the standard for a reduction of a habitual offender suspension, stating that the privilege to drive may be restored by the DMVH Hearing Officer “upon terms and conditions as the department may prescribe” if a motorist demonstrates good cause. “Good cause” is not defined in § 56-1-1090 or in case law applying that section. The term is subjective and implies broad discretion.

Words in a statute are given their ordinary meaning unless the legislature clearly intends otherwise. Etiwan, 217 S.C. 354, 60 S.E.2d at 684. Moreover, the agency’s interpretation cannot expand or contract the language of a statute or conflict with legislative intent. Comm’rs of Pub. Works v. S.C. Dep’t of Health and Envtl. Control, 372 S.C. 351, 641 S.E.2d 763 (Ct. App. 2007) (citing Brown v. S.C. Dep’t of Health and Envtl. Control, 348 S.C. 507, 515, 560 S.E.2d 410, 415 (2002)).

“Good cause” has been defined as “[a] legally sufficient ground or reason.” Black’s Law Dictionary 692 (6th ed. 1990). It is a “substantial reason amounting in law to a legal excuse for failing to perform an act required by law.” Id. The term is “relative and highly abstract,” and its meaning must be determined not only by the verbal context of the statute in which the term is used but also by the context of the action and procedures involved in type of case presented. Id.

In various contexts, courts have found that “good cause” requires more than personal circumstances or facts that are common to the population in general. See, e.g., Faile v. S.C. Employment Sec. Comm’n, 267 S.C. 536, 541-42, 230 S.E.2d 219, 222-23 (1976); S.C. Dep’t of Motor Vehicles v. Watts, 07-ALJ-21-0134-AP, at 5 (S.C. Admin. Law Ct., Jan. 24, 2008). A determination of whether good cause exists may require a balancing of the needs of the parties and public policy. See, e.g., Doe v. Ward Law Firm, 353 S.C. 509, 514-15, 579 S.E.2d 303, 305 (2003) (finding good cause to examine the medical records of the biological parents based upon the compelling needs of the adopted child and balancing the privacy rights of the parties against the best interest of the child). Good cause must be determined on a case-by-case basis. See Watts, 07-ALJ-21-0134-AP, at 6; Black’s Law Dictionary 692 (6th ed. 1990).

The cardinal rule of statutory construction is to give effect to the intent of legislature. Comm’rs of Pub. Works, 372 S.C. 351, 641 S.E.2d 763. The legislature stated its intent in enacting the habitual offender statutes as follows:

(a)    To provide maximum safety for all persons who use the public highways of this State; and

(b)   To deny the privilege of operating motor vehicles on such highways to persons who by their conduct and record have demonstrated their indifference to the safety and welfare of others and their disrespect for the laws of this State; and

(c)    To discourage repetition of unlawful acts by individuals against the peace and dignity of this State and her political subdivisions and to impose additional penalties upon habitual offenders who have been convicted repeatedly of violations of the traffic laws of this State.

S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090; State ex rel. McLeod v. Goff, 277 S.C. 511, 290 S.E.2d 238 (1982).

Here, the DMVH Hearing Officer appears to have properly balanced the motorist’s situation with the demands of public policy and specifically found that Gibson’s career development as a firefighter was being adversely impacted. At the hearing below, Gibson offered evidence that he is trained in various public safety areas and that he has been working as a volunteer fire fighter and cannot become employed or advance in his career as a firefighter until he has a driver’s license. This unique fact appears to distinguish Gibson’s circumstances from those shared by the population in general (such as the general inconvenience of being without a driver’s license) and supports the Hearing Officer’s finding of good cause. Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is AFFIRMED and Gibson’s reinstatement is upheld.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

______________________________

Paige J. Gossett

Administrative Law Judge

March 5, 2008

Columbia, South Carolina



[1] As the Department acknowledges, en banc decisions are binding on individual ALJs. See ALC Rule 70.


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