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Spalt v. South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Supreme Court of South Carolina

June 27, 2018

Melissa Spalt, Respondent,
v.
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles and South Carolina Department of Public Safety, Defendants, of whom South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles is the Petitioner.

          Heard May 24, 2018

          Appeal from the Administrative Law Court Harold W. Funderburk Jr., Administrative Law Judge Appellate Case No. 2017-000545

          Brandy Anne Duncan, Frank L. Valenta Jr., Philip S. Porter, all of Blythewood, for Petitioner.

          Michael Vincent Laubshire, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          JUSTICE FEW

         The court of appeals dismissed the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles' appeal on the ground the order on appeal was not a final decision of the administrative law court (ALC). We affirm.

         Melissa Spalt was arrested on April 5, 2015, for driving under the influence of alcohol. When she refused to submit to a breath test, the arresting officer issued a "notice of suspension" of her driver's license pursuant to subsection 56-5-2951(A) of the South Carolina Code (2018). Spalt requested a hearing before the South Carolina Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings (OMVH) to challenge her suspension, as permitted by subsection 56-5-2951(B)(2). The OMVH scheduled a hearing for June 23, 2015, at 9:00 a.m. On June 18, Spalt's attorney notified the OMVH he was scheduled to be in general sessions court at that time. The OMVH rescheduled the hearing for August 11, 2015, at 9:00 a.m.

         On Friday August 7, Spalt's attorney notified the OMVH in writing he was scheduled to appear in magistrates court on August 11 at 9:30 a.m. on behalf of another client in a different county from the OMVH hearing. The letter was scanned and attached to an email delivered to the OMVH at 12:30 p.m. on August 7. The email also included a scanned copy of a "Summary Court Summons" signed by the magistrate judge setting the client's case for a "date certain" jury trial. On Monday August 10, the OMVH notified Spalt's attorney by email the hearing officer had refused to reschedule the hearing. Twice on August 10, Spalt's attorney emailed the OMVH and the hearing officer in an attempt to reschedule the hearing. The arresting officer also emailed the OMVH on August 10 indicating he consented to the request. There is no indication in the record that the OMVH hearing officer responded to any of the August 10 emails.

         Spalt's attorney appeared in magistrates court on August 11 and did not attend the OMVH hearing. The hearing officer entered an "Order of Dismissal" on August 12, finding, "Neither [Spalt] nor her counsel appeared at the hearing and therefore waived the right to challenge the pending suspension." The hearing officer did not conduct a hearing on the merits of the suspension. Spalt appealed to the ALC, which reversed and remanded to the OMVH for a hearing on the merits.

         The Department of Motor Vehicles appealed the ALC's order to the court of appeals, which dismissed the appeal on the basis the ALC's order is not immediately appealable. Spalt v. S.C. Dep't of Motor Vehicles, Op. No. 2016-UP-475 (S.C. Ct. App. Nov. 9, 2016). We granted the Department's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. We affirm the dismissal of the appeal.

         In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority v. South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control, 387 S.C. 265, 692 S.E.2d 894 (2010), we held the Administrative Procedures Act permits an appeal only from "a final decision of the ALC." See 387 S.C. at 266, 692 S.E.2d at 894 (applying subsection 1-23-610(A)(1) of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2017) to an appeal from a contested case tried at the ALC); see also S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380 (Supp. 2017) ("A party . . . who is aggrieved by a final decision in a contested case is entitled to judicial review . . . ."). In this case, the ALC remanded the case to the OMVH for a hearing on the merits. Therefore, the ALC's order was not a final decision. See Charlotte-Mecklenburg, 387 S.C. at 267, 692 S.E.2d at 894 ("If there is some further act which must be done by the court prior to a determination of the rights of the parties, the order is" not final); 387 S.C. at 267, 692 S.E.2d at 895 ("A final judgment disposes of the whole subject matter of the action or terminates the particular proceeding or action, leaving nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined.").

         Despite Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Department makes several arguments in support of the immediate appealability of the ALC's interlocutory order. First, the Department argues the fact the ALC wrote the words "Final Order" in the caption of its order renders the order final for purposes of immediate appealability. The argument requires little response. Whether an order is final depends-as we explained in Charlotte-Mecklenburg-on the substance of the order: whether it "disposes of the whole subject matter of the action or terminates the particular proceeding or action, leaving nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined." 387 S.C. at 267, 692 S.E.2d at 895. The label given to the order is not determinative of its immediate appealability.

         Second, the Department argues the fact the OMVH dismissal of Spalt's challenge to her suspension would have been final had it been upheld renders the ALC's order final, despite the fact the ALC's order remands the case for a hearing on the merits. This is the same circumstance we faced in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In that case, the agency approved one party's application for a certificate of need, but denied all other applications. See Amisub of S.C., Inc. v. S.C. Dep't of Health & Envtl. Control, S.C.___, ___, 813 S.E.2d 719, 720 (2018) (describing the procedural history of Charlotte-Mecklenburg[1]). Two of the losing applicants appealed to the ALC. Amisub, ___ S.C. At ___, 813 S.E.2d at 720. If the ALC had upheld the agency's decision, it would have been a final decision. However, finality is determined by the disposition at the ALC, not by the disposition in the agency order on appeal. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg and in this case, the ALC reversed the agency decision and remanded for further proceedings. In both cases, the ALC's remand order left "some further act which must be done by the court prior to a determination of the rights of the parties." Charlotte-Mecklenburg, 387 S.C. at 267, 692 S.E.2d at 894. Therefore, as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the ALC's order in this case is not a final decision. If there was any doubt remaining after Charlotte-Mecklenburg, we now clarify that when a party seeks review of an order of the ALC-pursuant to section 1-23-380 or section 1-23-610-the court of appeals will not entertain an appeal from an order that leaves "some further act which must be done."[2]

         Third, the Department argues that denying an immediate appeal from the ALC's interlocutory order in this case "would encourage piecemeal litigation and limit the Department's appellate remedies," quoting and relying on this Court's post-Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision in Morrow v. Fundamental Long-Term Care Holdings, LLC, 412 S.C. 534, 773 S.E.2d 144 (2015). Morrow, however, was an appeal from the circuit court, and therefore governed by section 14-3-330 of the South Carolina Code (2017). 412 S.C. at 537-38, 773 S.E.2d at 145-46. As we explained in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, "[section] 14-3-330 . . . is inapplicable in cases where a party seeks review of a ...


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