Monday, September 15, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Donald H. May, Jr.

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Donald H. May, Jr.
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
07-ALJ-21-0398-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

ORDER

STATEMENT OF CASE

THIS MATTER is an appeal by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (the “Department”) from the Final Order and Decision by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles Hearings (the “DMVH”). The DMVH’s Order was issued in connection with an administrative hearing that was 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 Donald H. May, Jr. (“Respondent”) was an abuse of discretion by the DMVH hearing officer. The Administrativ e Law Court (“ALC”) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Upon consideration of the record, the DMVH’s Order is REVERSED.

BACKGROUND

The license to operate a motor vehicle upon South Carolina’s public highways is not a property right, but is a mere privilege subject to reasonable regulations in the interests of public safety and welfare. Sponar v. S.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 361 S.C. 35, 39, 603 S.E.2d 412, 415 (Ct. App. 2004), cert. granted on November 17, 2005 (quoting Summersell v. S.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 334 S.C. 357, 366, 513 S.E.2d 619, 624 (Ct. App. 1999), vacated in part on other grounds, 337 S.C. 19, 522 S.E.2d 144 (1999)). Consistent with this principle, S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090, as amended provides in pertinent part:

“No license to operate motor vehicles in this State may be issued to an habitual offender … (a) for a period of five years from the date of a final decision by the Department of Motor Vehicles that a person is an habitual offender … (c) until, upon petition and for good cause shown, the department may restore to the person the privilege to operate a motor vehicle ….”

Prior to January 1, 2006, the Department’s Office of Administrative Hearings held the hearings requested under Section 56-5-2951(B)(2). However, in the summer of 2005, S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 was extensively amended by Act No. 128, § 22, 2005 S.C. Acts 1503 (the “DMVH Act”). Pursuant to the amended Section 1-23-660, the DMVH was created as a division of the ALC and, as of January 1, 2006, “the duties, functions, and responsibilities of all hearing officers and associated staff” of the Department were transferred to the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Therefore, it is now the DMVH that conducts these hearings.

HISTORY

On May 25, 2004, Respondent was adjudicated as a Habitual Offender under S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2006) with the five (5) year suspension beginning September 24, 2004 and ending September 24, 2009. On April 3, 2007, after having served a suspension of more than two (2) years, Respondent filed a Petition under S.C. Code Ann §56-1-1090 seeking to have his S.C. Driver’s License restored and his privilege to drive reinstated.

The DMVH scheduled a hearing for May 9, 2007, and the Department Hearing Officer (“DHO”) issued a Final Order and Decision on July 13, 2007, that granted Respondent’s petition for a reduction of his Habitual Offender suspension.

FACTS

On May 25, 2004, Respondent was convicted of his third Driving Under Suspension (“DUS”) violation, making him a Habitual Offender under Section 56-1-1020. Respondent’s driver’s license was suspended for five (5) years beginning on September 24, 2004 and ending on September 24, 2009. The Ten (10) Year Driver Record entered into the record for the DMVH hearing indicated a litany of motor vehicle offense dating from 1997 through 2004. In light of the extent of Respondent’s lengthy offense history, the violations will be listed below.

Respondents Ten (10) Year Driver record contains the following violations:

·        Careless or Negligent driving – Violations on 06/1997 and 03/1999

·        Reckless driving – Violation on 08/1997 and 10/1997

·        Disobeying an official traffic device – Violations on 09/1997 and 11/1998

·        Speeding 10 m.p.h. or less – Violations on 07/1997, 04/1999, 08/1999, 09/1999, and 10/2000

·        Driving too fast for conditions – Violations on 01/1998 and 02/1999

·        Changing lanes improperly – Violation on 06/2001

·        Speeding more than 10 m.p.h. but less than 25 m.p.h. – Violations on 06/2001, 07/2001, and 05/20/2002.

·        Speeding 25 m.p.h. above the posted limit – Violation on 12/2001

·        Suspensions for Failure to pay traffic ticket – Suspensions on 04/2002, 06/2002, and 07/2002

·        Passing unlawfully – Violation on 10/22/2003

·        DUS – Violations on 05/20/2002, 10/22/2003, and 05/06/2004

·        Violation of Habitual Offender suspension from DUS on 12/24/2004

On April 3, 2007, Respondent filed a petition to request a hearing for a Habitual Offender suspension reduction. In the petition, Respondent was contrite and stated for good cause purposes that reinstatement of his license would enable him to care for his child independently without having to rely on his father as a means of transportation. Respondent’s good cause statement also explained that his father was the sole means of transportation for the household and that his father’s health was deteriorating. Respondent explained that without a license the loss of his father would place himself and the family in a precarious situation. Furthermore, Respondent stated that his former career as a professional dirt biker ended abruptly because of an accident that caused serious spinal nerve damage and impaired the use of one arm. He explained that finding employment is difficult and having a driver’s license would enable him to continue working in his current role as an electrician assistant. On April 11, 2007, the Department filed an Objection to Request for Reduction of Habitual Offender suspension that alleged Respondent was not eligible for a reduction, because he violated his Habitual Offender suspension despite prior written notice of the status of his driving privileges.

The DMVH notified the parties that a hearing would be held on May 9, 2007. At the hearing, the DHO questioned Respondent about his employment situation and about the circumstances surrounding the Habitual Offender suspension violation. Respondent’s hearing testimony evidenced remorse for his poor driving history, as well as concern for his inability to fulfill his parental obligations without a driver’s license. Respondent stated that he was aware that he should not have driven while under suspension, but he stated he did so in order to help an intoxicated friend get home. In all, Respondent testified that he has grown up since his “near death experience” that took place two years prior to the DMVH hearing. Hrg. Trans. 9:8-13.

On July 13, 2007, the DHO issued a Final Order and Decision finding good cause based on the fact that Respondent had changed his driving habits and had rehabilitated his lifestyle. In the Order, the DHO also found that Respondent was no longer immature and irresponsible, that Respondent’s had become gainfully employed, and that his career development and compensation was being impacted. The Department now appeals.

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.

ISSUE ON APPEAL

1.                  Did the DHO abuse her discretion and err in granting the reduction of the Habitual Offender suspension of Respondent/

The Habitual Offender laws of South Carolina exist to discourage repeat offenders and to keep the highways free from drivers that threaten the safety of others. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1010 (2006). Included in the enumerated offenses that qualifies as a Habitual Offender violation is Reckless Driving and Driving Under Suspension. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020(a)(3) and (4). Upon the commission of three such offenses, a driver is deemed a habitual offender under the laws of the State. Id. The public policy of Chapter 1 of Title 56 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina exist to keep the roads safe and to enforce compliance with the laws of the State.

No clear 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]

In this case, Respondent stated in his petition for a suspension reduction and in the DMVH hearing, that he needed his license in order to be able to drive to work and to fulfill his parental obligations. Respondent alleged that the injuries he sustained while a professional dirt bike racer made him realize the need for change and that he has subsequently matured and has become more responsible. Unfortunately, Respondent did not advance any other evidence pertaining to good cause other than his personal needs and misfortunes. The Court does not find that Respondent’s assertions are different from any other person in the general population who would also require the privilege to drive. The Court finds that the decision by the DHO was arbitrary and capricious and characterized by an abuse of discretion and clearly an unwarranted exercise of discretion based on the extent of Respondent’s Ten (10) Year Driver Record.

While the Court is very much sympathetic with the personal needs and physical setbacks of Respondent and cognizant of the personal difficulties that can arise without having a valid driver’s license, the Court is not presented with any substantial evidence pertaining to good cause that outweighs the public policy behind the Habitual Offender laws of the State. The plain fact is that Respondent’s driving record demonstrated a repeated indifference for the laws of the State and a disregard for the safety of others that travel along the State highways. After reviewing the record in its entirety, the Court finds that the DHO was in error and clearly exercised and abuse of discretion.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED, that the Order of the DHO is REVERSED.

________________________________

John D. McLeod, Judge

S.C. Administrative Law Court

March 3, 2008

Columbia, SC



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


~/pdf/070398.pdf
PDF