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Presumption of Correctness Afforded Administrative Agency Determinations and Judicial Review

Alabama Department of Environmental Management v. Wynlake Development, LLC, [Ms. 2190999, Apr. 9, 2021] ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2021). The court, in a plurality opinion (Thompson, P.J.; Hanson, J., concurs; Moore and Edwards, JJ., concur in the result; and Fridy, J., recuses) reverses a judgment of the Jefferson Circuit Court which had vacated fines imposed against a subdivision developer for violations of best management practices imposed pursuant to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System as required by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The court concludes the Jefferson Circuit Court erred in concluding the fines should be vacated because the circuit court’s ruling imposed evidentiary burdens exceeding its authority when engaging in judicial review of an agency determination under the Alabama Administrative Procedure Act, § 41-22-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975. Finding that the record reflected that ADEM’s administrative determination to impose the fines was supported by evidence it had considered each of the factors specified in § 22-22A-5 (18)c, the court concludes the circuit court erred by substituting its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence in violation of the principle that a presumption of correctness is afforded to decisions of administrative agencies because of their recognized expertise in specialized areas. Ms. **14-16. The opinion notes

The prohibition against a trial court’s or an appellate court’s substituting its own judgment for that of the administrative agency “ ‘ “holds true even in cases where the testimony is generalized, the evidence is meager, and reasonable minds might differ as to the correct result.” ’ ” ABC Coke v. GASP, 233 So. 3d 999, 1004 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016) (quoting Colonial Mgmt. Grp., L.P. v. State Health Planning & Dev. Agency, 853 So. 2d 972, 974-75 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002), quoting in turn Health Care Auth. of Huntsville v. State Health Planning Agency, 549 So. 2d 973, 975 (Ala. Civ. App. 1989)).

Ms. **16-17.

Because the record contains evidence supporting the administrative agency’s decisions, those decisions are to be afforded a presumption of correctness and the trial court accordingly erred to the extent it determined there was a lack of evidence supporting the agency’s imposition of an administrative fine after consideration of the factors set forth in § 22-22A-5(19)c. Ms. *17:

In essence, in reaching its judgment, the trial court has imposed on ADEM a requirement that is not set forth in § 22-22A-5(18)c., i.e., that of demonstrating a specific method pursuant to which it calculated the penalty against Wynlake. However, courts may not insert additional language or requirements into a statute. Bassie v. Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs. of Nw. Alabama, P.C., 828 So. 2d 280, 284 (Ala. 2002). See also Pace v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 578 So. 2d 281, 284 (Ala. 1991) (explaining that courts may not insert language into a statute). “‘This [c]ourt’s role is not to displace the legislature by amending statutes to make them express what we think the legislature should have done. Nor is it this [c]ourt’s role to assume the legislative prerogative to correct defective legislation or amended statutes.’” Grimes v. Alfa Mut. Ins. Co., 227 So. 3d 475, 488-89 (Ala. 2017) (quoting Siegelman v. Chase Manhattan Bank (USA), Nat’l Ass’n, 575 So. 2d 1041, 1051 (Ala. 1991)). See also Ex parte Christopher, 145 So. 3d 60, 66-67 (Ala. 2013) (discussing the caselaw prohibiting courts from interpreting a statute so as to add language not included in that statute by the legislature).

Ms. **19-20.

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