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In re Dawson


October 11, 2007


On appeal from New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

Per curiam.


Argued September 24, 2007

Before Judges Parrillo and Graves.

Roger S. Dawson, Jr. (Dawson), appeals from a decision by the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) denying his request for a hearing prior to the suspension of his New Jersey driver's license. Dawson contends that the denial of his request for a hearing violated his procedural due process rights, the fundamental fairness doctrine, and the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -15. After reviewing the record and the applicable law in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.

On June 12, 2006, the MVC sent Dawson a Scheduled Suspension Notice advising him that due to his fourth alcohol-related violation, his New Jersey driving privilege was scheduled to be suspended as of July 7, 2006, for 3600 days, and he could either accept the suspension, or he could request a hearing "in writing and mailed within 25 days of this notice." The notice stated that the scheduled suspension was authorized pursuant to "N.J.S.A. 39:5D-4, 39:5-30, and N.J.A.C. 13:19-11.1 et seq.," because he was "convicted of an alcohol-related violation in [an] Interstate Driver License Compact member state." The notice indicated that the alcohol-related violation occurred on February 28, 2006, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and it advised Dawson as follows:

Your request [for a hearing] must specify all disputed material facts and legal issues you or your attorney intend to raise at a hearing and must present all arguments on those issues you wish the Commission to consider. If your request fails to set forth any disputed material facts, legal issues, or arguments of such issues, the request will be denied and a suspension will become effective on a date specified by the Commission and constitute the Commission's final decision in this matter. If you request a hearing, a suspension will not become effective pending a decision on your request.

On June 29, 2006, Dawson's attorney sent a letter to the MVC requesting a hearing, but the request did not set forth any disputed material facts or legal issues. The letter, in its entirety, reads as follows:

RE: Roger S. Dawson, Jr.

D.L. No. . . .

Dear Sir or Madam:

I represent Roger S. Dawson, Jr. with regard to a Notice of Proposed Suspension dated June 12, 2006.

Please accept this letter as my client's request for a hearing on this suspension.

Kindly advise of the hearing date as soon as possible.

Very truly yours,

In a letter dated August 24, 2006, the MVC denied Dawson's request for a hearing because "[n]o legal arguments were set forth in [the] request nor were any facts disputed." Thus, the MVC determined there was no need for a hearing and the request for a hearing was denied. See N.J.A.C. 13:19-1.2(e) ("When a hearing request fails to set forth any disputed material fact and fails to set forth any legal issue or any argument on an issue, the request for a hearing shall be denied."). On October 2, 2006, an Order of Suspension was issued by the MVC, suspending Dawson's New Jersey driving privilege as of September 19, 2006, for 3600 days.

The revocation of a driver's license falls within the type of administrative action that must comport with due process.

Once licenses are issued . . . their continued possession may become essential in the pursuit of a livelihood. Suspension of issued licenses thus involves state action that adjudicates important interests of the licensees. In such cases the licenses are not to be taken away without that procedural due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment. [Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535, 539, 91 S.Ct. 1586, 1589, 29 L.Ed. 2d 90, 94 (1971).]

In most cases, the APA "does not create a substantive right to an administrative hearing." In re Fanelli, 174 N.J. 165, 172 (2002). "[T]he right to an administrative hearing generally must be found outside the APA in another statute or constitutional provision . . . ." Christ Hosp. v. Dep't of Health and Senior Servs., 330 N.J. Super. 55, 61 (App. Div. 2000). However, there is an exception: N.J.S.A. 52:14B-11 provides that, "[n]o agency shall revoke or refuse to renew any license unless it has first afforded the licensee an opportunity for hearing in conformity with the provisions of this act applicable to contested cases."

A contested administrative case is commenced in the state agency with appropriate subject matter jurisdiction. N.J.A.C. 1:1-3.1. After an agency proceeding has begun, the agency head must "determine whether the matter is a contested case." N.J.A.C. 1:1-4.1(a). A contested case is defined as: a proceeding, including any licensing proceeding, in which the legal rights, duties, obligations, privileges, benefits[,] or other legal relations of specific parties are required by constitutional right or by statute to be determined by an agency by decisions, determinations, or orders, addressed to them or disposing of their interests, after opportunity for an agency hearing[.] [N.J.S.A. 52:14B-2(b) (emphasis added).]

In contested cases, the APA provides that "all parties shall be afforded an opportunity for hearing after reasonable notice." N.J.S.A. 52:14B-9(a). However, no hearing is necessary "where the agency is required by any law to revoke, suspend or refuse to renew a license, as the case may be, without exercising any discretion in the matter, on the basis of a judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction." N.J.S.A. 52:14B-11; see also N.J.A.C. 13:19-1.13 ("No hearing shall be provided when the action taken by the [Motor Vehicle] Commission is required by any law which prescribes a suspension or revocation of a license or a privilege and which requires no exercise of discretion on the part of the Motor Vehicle Commission.").

Under New Jersey's Driving While Intoxicated statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3), "[f]or a third or subsequent [drunk driving] violation, [defendant] . . . shall thereafter forfeit his right to operate a motor vehicle over the highways of this State for 10 years." (Emphasis added.) In this case, because North Carolina and New Jersey are both parties to the Interstate Driver License Compact (Compact), N.J.S.A. 39:5D-1 to -14, the North Carolina court had "competent jurisdiction" to convict Dawson of driving while impaired on the roads of North Carolina, and New Jersey was required, pursuant to the Compact, to treat Dawson's conduct in North Carolina as if it occurred in New Jersey. N.J.S.A. 39:5D-4. Thus, under the Compact and New Jersey's Driving While Intoxicated statute, the MVC was required by law to suspend Dawson's driving privilege for ten years. Consequently, a hearing was not required under the APA.

"Procedural due process requires that someone faced with the deprivation of a significant right be accorded the opportunity for a hearing . . . ." McGarrah v. State, Dep't. of Law & Pub. Safety, Div. of Motor Vehicles, 268 N.J. Super. 577, 581 (App. Div. 1993), certif. denied, 135 N.J. 469 (1994). However, an evidentiary hearing is required "only if material disputed adjudicative facts exist." Frank v. Ivy Club, 120 N.J. 73, 98 (1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 1073, 111 S.Ct. 799, 112 L.Ed. 2d 860 (1991); see, e.g., State, Div. of Motor Vehicles v. Pepe, 379 N.J. Super. 411, 419 (App. Div. 2005) ("No disputed issues of material fact existed. Hence, no evidentiary hearing was required.").

In this case, the Scheduled Suspension Notice that Dawson received clearly provided him with the opportunity to make an offer of proof regarding disputed facts. In his request for a hearing, Dawson, through counsel, made absolutely no mention of disputed facts or legal issues to be raised. Because Dawson was provided with an opportunity to proffer disputed material facts, the notice he received was consistent with the APA, New Jersey case law, and procedural due process.

Finally, Dawson contends that fundamental fairness requires reversal of the decision to deny his hearing request. Dawson states that even with "Einsteinian intelligence," he could not decipher the reasons for the proposed suspension of his driver's license. This simply is not the case. The Scheduled Suspension Notice that Dawson received included his "Driving History Record," which clearly denoted his three prior drunk driving offenses. Collectively, the Scheduled Suspension Notice and Driving History Record provided Dawson with full knowledge of the suspension scheduled by the MVC, the reasons for the proposed suspension, and the specific procedure to be followed to request a hearing. Thus, we are satisfied that Dawson was not treated unfairly.



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