The Fundamentals of Administrative Review in South Carolina

08.20.2021

The litigation of disputes in the Administrative Law Court is unique in many ways from the other venues in which litigation occurs in South Carolina. The Administrative Law Court (ALC) falls under the Execute Branch of state government, as opposed to the Judicial Branch. Despite this distinction, the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are elected by the General Assembly just like the judges and justices of the circuit courts, family courts, and appellate courts. This means the judges in the ALC undergo the same rigorous screening and selection process as the men and women serving on South Carolina’s highest courts.

There are many benefits to having cases heard in the ALC. To start with, and unlike the state circuit and family courts, each case is assigned to a specific judge after filing, who then presides over the case from outset to end result. This continuity in identity of the decision-maker is significant, eliminating the uncertainty often experienced by litigants in the state judicial process, where a single case could have any number of presiding judges to hear and rule on motions, pre-hearing issues, and the trial itself.

Another tremendous benefit to litigating in the ALC is the experience the ALJs and their staff have for the specific subjects that are heard by the court, which is a result of the exclusiveness of the jurisdiction established by the General Assembly in the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). South Carolina has dozens of administrative agencies that have been created by the General Assembly, agencies with delegated powers to oversee and administer hundreds of important state programs and policies. Through the APA and in order to ensure due process is afforded to persons subject to agency action, a person aggrieved or upset with the decisions of an administrative agency will be afforded some measure of review in the ALC.

To that review, there is an important distinction depending on the nature of the case brought to the Court. Again, relatively unique to administrative law, the nature and extent of the review before the ALC depends on the state agency at issue. There are in fact two distinctly different processes in the ALC – one for de novo review of agency actions (which means, the matter is reviewed again with independent factual findings and legal conclusions made by the ALJ), and one for appeals of internal agency reviews.

Administrative challenges with de novo review typically involve discovery, development of an evidentiary record, and a merits hearing with the presentation of witnesses and submission of documentary evidence before the ALJ. The presiding judge makes his or her own findings of fact and conclusions of law, not bound by the findings or conclusions of the state agency. This is the review process that applies to matters involving the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Department of Revenue, and the Department of Natural Resources, for example.

The other review process, which involves a ‘closed’ record and a standard of review that is equivalent to that afforded by the Court of Appeals, applies to matters involving agencies that have an internal hearing forum, like the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Within HHS, there is a Division of Appeals and Hearings that provides for a hearing process and is the forum in which the evidentiary record is developed. If a person is aggrieved or upset with the outcome following the Division’s ruling, then the ALC hears the matter by reviewing the record created within the agency and considers legal arguments briefed by the litigants, evaluating whether the agency’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Other agencies that fall within this appellate framework are the Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW), the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, and the Department of Social Services (DSS). At DEW, an Appellate Panel within the agency reviews eligibility determinations made by the agency that are then appealed to the ALC. Within DSS, hearings on eligibility determinations take place before a Fair Hearing Committee and include an evidentiary hearing leading to a final administrative order that is subject to appeal in the ALC.

Regardless of the nature of the grievance, Nexsen Pruet’s lawyers stand ready to assist with your administrative challenge at the agency level, the ALC, or the appellate courts.

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