Saturday, October 25, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Juan Lanzgorta Castro

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Juan Lanzgorta Castro
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
08-ALJ-21-0056-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

FINAL ORDER

The Department of Motor Vehicles appeals from an order of the South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings (DMVH), claiming that the DMVH erroneously rescinded the suspension of Juan Castro’s vehicle registration privileges. The DMVH issued its order after conducting a hearing pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007). The Administrative Law Court (ALC) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. §§ 56-9-363 & 1-23-660 (Supp. 2007). Because the DMVH’s order is based on an error of law, it must be reversed.

FACTS

On July 17, 2007, Castro’s vehicle was involved in an accident while another person was attempting to park it at a convenience store. On September 18, 2007, the Department sent Castro written notice that, as a result of the accident, his vehicle registration privilege would be suspended, effective October 18, 2007, pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-351 (2006).[1] The notice informed Castro that he could clear the suspension by (1) providing written verification that his vehicle was insured at the time of the accident; or (2) using one of the alternative compliance options listed on the back of the notice. On October 17, 2007, Castro requested a hearing to challenge the suspension pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007). The DMVH conducted a hearing on November 15, 2007. On January 23, 2008, the DMVH hearing officer issued an order rescinding Castro’s suspension based on her conclusion that no reasonable possibility existed that a civil court might enter judgment against Castro “for being the sole contributing party” to the accident because both vehicle operators contributed to the accident. The Department 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. 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 (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).

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 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. 2007). Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2007), administrative law judges must conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in section 1-23-380(A).

DISCUSSION

The hearing officer’s rescission of Castro’s suspension was based on her interpretation of S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007), which provides as follows:

Any person whose driving privilege becomes subject to suspension or is suspended under the provisions of this article may request an administrative hearing with the Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings prior to the suspension or within thirty days after written notice of the suspension in order that he might prove that no reasonable possibility exists that a civil court might enter a judgment against him as a result of the accident in question.

S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007).[2]

The hearing officer concluded that no reasonable possibility existed that a civil court might enter a judgment against Castro “for being the sole contributing party” to the accident because both vehicle operators contributed to the accident. However, nothing in the language of section 56-9-363 specifies that the potential judgment must be based on a finding that the person who sought the DMVH hearing was solely responsible for the accident. If the person who sought the hearing becomes a defendant in a negligence action and a jury determines that he was at least fifty percent at fault, there is a reasonable possibility that judgment, in an amount corresponding to his contribution to the accident, might be entered against him. See Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., 303 S.C. 243, 399 S.E.2d 783 (1991) (comparative negligence doctrine).

Because the hearing officer misconstrued section 56-9-363 by expanding its operation, her rescission of Castro’s suspension was based on an error of law. See Floyd v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 367 S.C. 253, 260, 626 S.E.2d 6, 10 (2005) (cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature); Cooper v. Moore, 351 S.C. 207, 212, 569 S.E.2d 330, 332 (2002) (where the terms of the statute are clear, the court must apply those terms according to their literal meaning, without resort to subtle or forced construction to limit or expand the statute’s operation). Therefore, the DMVH rescission of the Department’s suspension must be reversed. See S.C. Code Ann. §1-23-380(A)(5)(d) (Supp. 2007) (ALC may reverse or modify agency decision if substantial rights of appellant have been prejudiced because administrative conclusions are affected by error of law).

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is REVERSED.

AND IT IS SO ORDERED.

____________________________________

June 20, 2008 JOHN D. GEATHERS

Columbia, South Carolina Administrative Law Judge

1205 Pendleton Street, Suite 224

Columbia, South Carolina 29201-3731



[1] 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.

S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-351 (2006). Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-352 (2006), section 56-9-351 does not apply in several different situations, including where the vehicle in question was insured at the time of the accident.

[2] The language of section 56-9-363 seems to limit the class of persons who can obtain a hearing pursuant to the statute. It states that any person whose driving privilege becomes subject to suspension or is suspended may request a hearing before the DMVH to prove that no reasonable possibility exists that a civil court might enter a judgment against him as a result of the accident. Therefore, it is questionable whether the statute would apply to a hearing request submitted by one whose vehicle registration privilege only is subject to suspension or has been suspended. However, this court need not decide this question because, even if the statute applies to Castro, he failed to satisfy the standard set forth therein, that no reasonable possibility exists that a civil court might enter judgment against him as a result of the accident.


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