Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Florida Courts Must Defer to Administrative Agencies' Interpretation of Their Own Rules

In Florida, as in other states and in federal law, courts must give deference to an administrative agency's interpretation of its own rules. I've found that the average citizen usually finds this odd. Why should we allow an agency making a determination on a permit, entitlement, or other benefit to interpret its own rules? The short answer is administrative law is about efficiency, and not always about fairness.

In any case, the 2d DCA recently reinforced this principle in Duke's Steakhouse Ft. Myers, Inc. v. G5 Properties, LLC, - So. 3d -, 2013 WL 191922 (Fla. 2d DCA Jan. 18, 2013). Duke's challenged an order of the South Florida Water Management District approving an environmental resource permit (ERP). The administrative law judge (ALJ) recommended that the agency deny the permit. The District, however, issued a final order approving the ERP, rejecting the ALJ's interpretation of the District's rules:
[The District's] board did not reweigh the evidence or modify the ALJ's findings of fact. Rather, it rejected the ALJ's interpretation of the applicable Florida Administrative Code—specifically, the ALJ's conclusion of law that G5 did not meet BOR section 5.2.1(a) water quality requirements. Section 120.57(1)(l ) provides that an agency may reject or modify the ALJ's conclusions of law and interpretation of administrative rules, so long as its determination is as or more reasonable than those of the ALJ. Beyond peradventure, an agency bears the primary responsibility to interpret statutes and rules within its regulatory expertise and jurisdiction. See, e.g., Pub. Emps. Relations Comm'n v. Dade Cnty. Police Benevolent Ass'n, 467 So.2d 987, 989 (Fla.1985). An agency's interpretation of such statutes and rules does not have to be the only reasonable interpretation—only a permissible one, see, e.g., Suddath Van Lines, Inc. v. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 668 So.2d 209, 212 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996), and should not be overturned unless clearly erroneous. See, e.g., Collier County Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Fish & Wildlife Conservation Comm'n, 993 So.2d 69, 72 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008).
The 2d DCA concluded that the District's interpretation of its rules were as or more reasonable than the ALJ's  interpretation. Thus, it affirmed the District final order granting the permit.