You may think of the law as divided between criminal and civil courts. And this would be true to an extent. Criminal courts handle violations of criminal laws, like DUIs, assault, and fraud. Civil courts handle violations of civil laws, such as breach of contract or personal injury claims. However, there are additional areas of law you may encounter in your daily life. Administrative law is the area of law that regulates how local, state, and federal government agencies work. It dictates the operations and procedures these agencies must abide by. When you are involved in a legal matter with a government agency, you must abide by these rules and processes too.

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What are government agencies?

Before diving into when you may encounter administrative law, it is important to know more about government agencies, which may be referred to as administrative or regulatory agencies.

Agencies are created by a governing body, such as Congress or a state legislature. Congress or the legislature delegates power to the agency to carry out certain responsibilities. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a federal agency with the purpose of protecting public health and safety through the control and prevention of diseases, injuries, and disabilities. Other well-known government agencies are the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Administrative law for agencies

Agencies are given the power to create new laws that support their purpose and to enforce those laws. Over time, the agencies interpret and provide guidance on how to remain compliant with these regulations. When an individual or business violates those regulations, they can be investigated and fined.

Because agencies are asked to take a significant and important role in lawmaking and enforcement, they are incredibly powerful. However, under administrative law, they must act within Constitutional limits and parameters set out in federal or state statutes. The boundaries federal agencies must work within are found in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). There are equivalent state laws as well, for example, California has its own Administrative Procedure Act. There are many other federal administrative law statutes as well.

The APA defines the power of federal agencies, their role in government, and the procedures they must follow. The APA dictates when and how agencies can create formal and informal regulations, how they can adjudicate compliance with those rules, how they may offer non-binding guidance, and more.

Another aspect of the APA, or a state equivalent, is it establishes consistent processes for agencies. This enables lawyers and other professionals to learn administrative processes and rules for all state or federal agencies.

When you may encounter administrative law

  • Employment disputes

If you have a problem with your employer, the first place you should turn is your state department of labor or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The dispute may be in regard to pay, overtime wages, sick leave, disability benefits, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, or any other employment issue. You typically must go through the administrative complaint process before you can file a civil lawsuit against your employer. The state or federal agency will investigate the claim, finding it either credible or not, and may facilitate a resolution.

  • Professional licensure

If you currently practice an occupation that requires a professional license, or you are in school to do so, then you will deal with administrative law throughout your career. Take being a nurse—every state will have a board that oversees nursing professionals within the state. It will investigate claims of misconduct, and when necessary, sanction nurses for unlawful or unethical behavior or revoke their license. The state nursing board will also dictate continuing education and other professional requirements.

  • Automatic license suspensions

When you are arrested for a DUI, and you refuse to take a breath, blood, or urine test or have a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit, your driver’s license will be automatically suspended. This is a civil penalty distinct from any DUI charges or criminal punishments. Once you receive notice of this automatic civil suspension, you have a brief period of time (usually 10 days) to ask for an administrative hearing with your states DMV. You also have to go through the administrative process if you lose your driver’s license and wish to ask for a hardship or limited driver’s license.

The administrative process

The administrative process is not the same process as a criminal or civil trial. This is why it is essential to work with a lawyer who is experienced in administrative law and legal issues similar to your own.

To begin the process, you may file a complaint with the agency, or a complaint may be filed against you. In certain circumstances, a hearing may be required, or you may need to request a formal administrative hearing within a certain period of time. At the hearing, the arguments will be heard and decided by an administrative law judge, which is almost always an attorney who is highly experienced with that agency’s rules.

The processes and rules for what you can and should do during the hearing are specific to the administrative process. So are your right to appeal and how you can go about appealing an administrative judge’s decision.

If you disagree with an agency’s decision, you can typically appeal the decision in the civil court system.