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The administrative hearing process
A person whose substantial interests are affected by a St. Johns River Water Management District permitting decision can request an administrative hearing under Chapter 120, Florida Statutes. An administrative hearing is a legal process in which an independent and neutral Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) hears disputes over actions by agencies in the state of Florida.
The petition must comply with Florida Statutes and administrative code (Sections 120.54(5)(b)4 and 120.569(2)(c), Florida Statutes, and Chapter 28-106, Florida Administrative Code).
District legal counsel review the petition and, if it complies with state law and District rule requirements, the petition is forwarded to DOAH.
DOAH assigns an ALJ to conduct a hearing. The parties then engage in discovery proceedings. Discovery is the period during which each party requests relevant information and documents from the other side in an attempt to “discover” pertinent facts. Generally, discovery may include depositions, interrogatories, requests for admissions, document production requests and requests for inspection. Discovery in DOAH hearings is governed by the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and Chapter 28-106, Florida Administrative Code.
After discovery and pre-trial proceedings are complete, an evidentiary hearing is conducted that is generally in accordance with the Florida Rules of Evidence. After the hearing, each party may file a proposed recommended order with the ALJ containing proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The ALJ then considers the proposed recommended orders and issues a recommended order to the District containing findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommended agency action. The parties may then file exceptions to the ALJ’s recommended order and responses to exceptions filed by opposing parties.
The District’s decision-maker (the executive director for recommendations of approval and the Governing Board for recommendations of denial) then reviews the ALJ’s recommended order and the exceptions and responses to exceptions filed by the parties. The agency then issues a final order. The agency has very limited authority in modifying the findings of fact in the recommended order. It may modify conclusions of law that are within the District’s substantive jurisdiction if the agency’s legal interpretation is at least as reasonable as that of the ALJ. An appeal of the final order may be taken within a limited time to a state District Court of Appeal.