Thursday, October 30, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
John Novelli vs South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles and Mauldin Police Department

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
John Novelli

Respondent:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles and Mauldin Police Department

 
DOCKET NUMBER:
08-ALJ-21-0223-AP

APPEARANCES:
 

ORDERS:

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. 2007).  The Department contends that the DMVH hearing officer erroneously reduced the driver’s license suspension of Respondent Antonio J. McDuffie (McDuffie).  The Administrative Law Court (ALC or Court) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2007).  Upon consideration of the briefs, the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is affirmed as set forth below.

background

            The Petitioner’s driving record shows that on February 7, 2003, in accord with Code Section 56-1-1090, state law declared the Petitioner to be a habitual offender as a result of three major violations on and prior to July 12, 2002.  Pursuant to Section 56-1-1090(a), that resulted in a five year habitual offender suspension beginning February 7, 2003 and ending February 7, 2008.  In 2004, after being convicted of Driving Under Suspension (DUS) on three separate occasions in a three-year period, Respondent was found to be a “habitual offender” pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2007).  In accordance with S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(a), his driver’s license was suspended for a five-year period beginning March 18, 2005 and ends March 18, 2010.

            In March 2008, pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2007), Respondent filed a petition with the DMVH for a reduction of his habitual offender suspension.  In his petition, Respondent stated that he has learned how to be responsible and if given another chance to acquire a license he would use it to go back and forth to work and to church. He also stated that he wanted to “start over and prove what is right.”

            The DMVH notified the parties that an administrative hearing regarding Respondent’s petition would be held on April 22, 2008.  On March 26, 2008, the Department filed an Objection to Request for Reduction of Habitual Offender Suspension (Objection) with the DMVH.  In the Objection, the Department argued that, due to Respondent’s November 2004 offense, reduction of Respondent’s habitual offender suspension would violate Department Policy VS-001 and that, therefore, Respondent’s petition should not be granted.  As support for its Objection, the Department attached Department Policy VS-001, as well as a copy of the Uniform Traffic Ticket for Respondent’s November 29, 2004 offense.

            The hearing was held, as scheduled, on April 22, 2008.  At the hearing, the DMVH hearing officer asked Respondent about his November 29, 2004 offense.  Respondent testified that this offense was the result of a hit and run accident with property damage. He also testified that he couldn’t make any excuses for his past mistakes, but states that he will do better and make a difference if given another chance.

            On April 28, 2008, 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 DMVH hearing officer abuse his discretion by reducing Respondent’s 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. 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

            The Department argues that, based on Respondent’s November 29, 2004 offense, the DMVH hearing officer abused his discretion by reducing Respondent’s habitual offender suspension.

            An abuse of discretion occurs when a court’s decision is controlled by an error of law or is without evidentiary support.  Mictronics, Inc. v. S.C. Dep’t of Revenue, 345 S.C. 506, 510, 548 S.E.2d 223, 225 (Ct. App. 2001).  The burden is on the appellant to show that there is an abuse of discretion.  Johnson v. Hoechst Celanese Corp., 317 S.C. 415, 421, 453 S.E.2d 908, 912 (Ct. App. 1995).

            Here, Respondent offered testimonial evidence demonstrating that: (i) after his November 29, 2004 offense, he realized the importance of complying with South Carolina’s motor vehicle laws; (ii) Respondent had not driven since his November 29, 2004 offense; (iii) Respondent has no driving under the influence violations on his record, nor any controlled substance violations; (iv) Respondent was employed;  (v) Respondent accepted responsibility for his past mistakes and (vi) Respondent has been working to pay all of his reinstatement fees

            Based on this evidence, I conclude that the DMVH hearing officer did not abuse his discretion by reducing Respondent’s habitual offender suspension.  Ordinarily, there is no abuse of discretion where an agency’s determination is supported by substantial evidence.  See Porter v. S.C. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 328 S.C. 222, 233, 493 S.E.2d 92, 98 (1997) (holding, in a public utility rate-setting case, that “there is no abuse of discretion where substantial evidence supports the finding of a just and reasonable rate”).  As discussed above, 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, 282 S.C. at 641, 321 S.E.2d at 68.  Here, a reasonable person could conclude that good cause was shown for the reduction of Respondent’s suspension.[1]  Therefore, the hearing officer did not abuse his discretion in this case.

ORDER

            IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is AFFIRMED.

            AND IT IS SO ORDERED.

 

                                                                        ______________________________

                                                                        Carolyn C. Matthews

                                                                        Administrative Law Judge

May 4, 2009

Columbia, South Carolina

 

 



[1]  Interestingly, this Court’s review of this case is in accordance with whether a reasonable person (the substantial evidence standard) could find good cause which entails a consideration of the sufficiency or reasonableness of the evidence.  See Black’s Law Dictionary 213 (7th ed. 1999).  Ultimately, the determination must be whether a reasonable person could find that the facts warrant reducing the suspension.


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