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SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

Johnny Brown, #140426 vs. SCDOC

South Carolina Department of Corrections

Johnny Brown, #140426

South Carolina Department of Corrections



Grievance No. McCl 1006-00

I. Introduction

Johnny Brown (Brown) brings this appeal challenging a decision by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) which convicted Brown of striking an employee with or without a weapon for which he lost 90 days of good time credit. Jurisdiction is invoked in the instant case since this matter is a disciplinary hearing in which Brown was punished by the loss of good time credits, a loss which impacts a created liberty interest. Al-Shabazz v. State, 338 S.C. 354, 527 S.E.2d 742, 750 (2000); McNeil v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, 00-ALJ-04-00336-AP (September 5, 2001). After a review of the record and the arguments, the DOC decision is AFFIRMED.

II. Scope of Review

In this review, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) acts "in an appellate capacity" and is "restricted to reviewing the decision below." Al-Shabazz v. State, 338 S.C. 354, 527 S.E.2d 742, 754 (2000). The review must apply the criteria of S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(6) (Supp. 2000). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2000) (where an ALJ is directed to conduct a review "in the same manner prescribed in [§ 1-23-380](A)."). Section 1-23-380(A)(6) establishes the following:

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.

In this case, Brown argues that the DOC decision is made upon unlawful procedure and the decision is clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative and substantial evidence on the whole record.

III. Analysis

A. Unlawful Procedure

Brown argues the hearing was carried out under unlawful procedure since DOC failed to follow its own procedures. Here, the specific allegation is that DOC failed to handle the matter informally and failed to have the matter reviewed by a shift supervisor before Brown was charged. Such a failure does not automatically require a reversal of or even a modification to the DOC order.

Rather, well established law explains that an agency's failure to follow its own procedural rules and regulations does not violate an aggrieved party's constitutional due process rights since no such constitutional right exists. See Board of Curators v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 92, 98 S.Ct. 948, 956, 55 L.Ed.2d 124, 136 (1978); Hernandez v. Estelle, 788 F.2d 1154 (5th Cir.1986) ("The claim is that the mere failure of the TDC [Texas Department of Corrections] officials to follow their regulations was a constitutional violation. There is no such controlling constitutional principle."). Instead of a constitutional issue, deciding whether an agency is obligated "to follow its own rules and regulations is founded in principles of administrative law." Ogburn-Matthews v. Loblolly Partners (Ricefields Subdivision), 332 S.C. 551, 505 S.E.2d 598, 603 (Ct.App. 1998), overruled on other grounds by Brown v. South Carolina Dept. of Health and Environmental Control, ___ S.C. ___, 560 S.E.2d 410 (2002).

In a traditional agency setting, the principles of administrative law leave the agency with little, if any, discretion in deciding whether to follow the regulations governing that agency. See e.g. Triska v. Department of Health and Environmental Control, 292 S.C. 190, 355 S.E.2d 531 (1987) ("DHEC must also follow its own regulations . . . in carrying out the legitimate purposes of the agency."). However, in an inmate context, significant discretion is available to DOC.

For example, even when the inmate holds a constitutionally granted procedural due process right, DOC has discretion to limit that right for rational reasons. See Ponte v. Real, 471 U.S. 491, 497, 105 S.Ct. 2192, 2196, 85 L.Ed.2d 553 (1985) (due process is met "so long as the reasons [for depriving an inmate of his rights] are logically related to 'institutional safety or correctional goals'....".). Moreover, given DOC's task of maintaining a orderly prison environment, the exercise of broad discretion is inherent. Indeed, that degree of discretion is such that a reviewing body is essentially concerned with whether DOC's actions are rationally grounded as opposed to arbitrarily based. Al-Shabazz, supra. at 381 (among other concerns, a body charged with reviewing a DOC inmate decision is concerned with whether the "prison officials have acted arbitrarily [or] capriciously . . . Brown [v. Evatt], 322 S.C. [189] at 194, 470 S.E.2d [848] at 851 [(1996)]; Crowe [v. Leeke], 273 S.C. [763] at 764, 259 S.E.2d [614] at 615 [(1979)].")

Thus, if DOC fails to follow a procedural rule, the "principles of administrative law" will not warrant a reversal of or a modification to the appealed order if the failure to follow the procedure is based in reason as opposed to capriciousness. Here, no arbitrary action was taken as to Brown. Rather, a hearing was held in which Brown had a fair opportunity to hear all evidence and a reasoned decision was reached. Thus no reason exists to reverse or modify the DOC decision. (1)

B. Substantial Evidence

Brown argues the DOC decision must be reversed since the decision is not supported by the evidence. I cannot agree.

In examining a DOC determination for the presence of evidentiary support, an ALJ must review the matter in an appellate capacity. Al-Shabazz v. State, 338 S.C. 354, 527 S.E.2d 742. In that capacity, an ALJ reviewing factual disputes between DOC and the inmate "will not substitute [the ALJ's] judgment for that of the [DOC Hearing Officer] as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact." S.C.Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(6) (Supp. 2000).

Thus, once the facts are established by the Hearing Officer, the ALJ will not re-weigh the evidence in an attempt to come to an independent conclusion on the factual dispute. Rather, the ALJ will rely upon the Hearing Officers factual determinations unless such those determinations are "clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record. S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23- 380(A)(6)(e) (Supp. 2000). In determining if substantial evidence supports the Hearing Officer's factual determinations, the ALJ does not look for "a mere scintilla of evidence nor evidence viewed blindly from one side, but [rather looks for ] evidence which, when considering the record as a whole, would allow reasonable minds to reach the conclusion that the agency reached." Palmetto Alliance, Inc. v. South Carolina Pub. Serv. Comm'n, 282 S.C. 430, 432, 319 S.E.2d 695, 696 (1984). Accordingly, if such evidence is present, substantial evidence is present and the factual determinations will not be overturned.

Here, substantial evidence supports the factual determinations made below. During the hearing, Brown admitted that he threw a rock at a DOC employee. The defense was that the rock was thrown in jest. The contrary testimony was that the rock was not thrown in jest but instead in anger. The hearing officer had conflicting testimony and was required to determine the credibility of each witness. The conclusion reached by the hearing officer is one that reasonable minds could have reached and support the position that Brown committed the act here in dispute. Thus, substantial evidence supports the DOC decision.

IV. Conclusion

The guilty verdict entered by DOC against Johnny Brown is AFFIRMED.




Administrative Law Judge

Dated: April 23, 2002

Columbia, South Carolina

1. Finding broad discretion in DOC is especially applicable since our General Assembly expressed its intent not to rigidly bind DOC inmate policy decisions. Rather, DOC is exempt from the duty to promulgate regulations dealing with the supervision of inmates. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-10(4) (Supp. 2000) (where DOC has no duty to issue inmate supervision "regulations" since such does not include "orders of the supervisory or administrative agency of a penal, . . . institution, in respect to the institutional supervision, custody, control, care, or treatment of inmates, [or] prisoners, . . . .").

Brown Bldg.






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