July 27, 2020

California Supreme Court confirms that clear and convincing evidence standard applies on appeal (Conservatorship of O.B.)

Today the California Supreme Court settled a long-running split of authority that we have blogged about often.  In Conservatorship of O.B., the Supreme Court clarified that the clear and convincing evidence standard applies on appeal, and does not "disappear" during appellate review, as some opinions had mistakenly held.

To recap the issue, most facts in civil cases must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the fact is more likely than not to be true.  But for certain facts, California law requires proof by clear and convincing evidence, which is a higher burden, and requires evidence that is “so clear as to leave no substantial doubt” and “sufficiently strong to command the unhesitating assent of every reasonable mind.”  (See In re Angelia P.)

The clear and convincing evidence standard applies to the facts necessary for an award of punitive damages.  (See Civil Code section 3294, subdivision (a).)  It also applies to the facts necessary for establishing a conservatorship, which was the issue in the O.B. case.  The trial court in O.B. concluded that a conversatorship was warranted for a woman with autism.  She appealed, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence.  The Court of Appeal, in reviewing the evidence, ignored the clear and convincing evidence standard, reasoning that the standard applies only in the trial court but not on appeal.  As we have reported here, several other Court of Appeal opinions have taken that same approach (usually in unpublished opinions), often without acknowledging contrary authority holding that appellate courts must consider the higher standard of proof when evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence.

The Supreme Court granted review to resolve the split of authority.  The conservators tried to rely on legislative history to defend the Court of Appeal's approach.  They argued that when the Legislature adopted the clear and convincing standard for conservatorship cases, it did so against a backdrop of "150 years of consistent precedent" from the Supreme Court of California squarely holding that the clear and convincing evidence standard applies only to the trial court, and disappears on appeal.

The problem with that argument was that it rested on a false premise about "150 years of consistent precedent." As the O.B. opinion explains (and as our firm pointed out in an amicus brief), the Supreme Court had issued conflicting statements on the issue over the years, so there is no basis to infer that the Legislature adopted the conservators' view, which is actually a minority view in the case law in California and elsewhere.

After examining the issue thoroughly, the Supreme Court concluded that "logic, sound policy, and precedent all point toward the same conclusion: When reviewing a finding made pursuant to the clear and convincing standard of proof, an appellate court must attune its review for substantial evidence to the heightened degree of certainty required by this standard."  Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and disapproved the line of cases holding that the clear and convincing evidence standard disappears on appeal.

So how will this actually work in practice?  Does this mean that an appellate court can now reweigh the evidence and reevaluate the credibility of the witnesses when deciding whether the evidence was sufficient to meet the higher standard of proof?  No.  The Supreme Court explains (my emphasis in bold):

When reviewing a finding that a fact has been proved by clear and convincing evidence, the question before the appellate court is whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could have found it highly probable that the fact was true. In conducting its review, the court must view the record in the light most favorable to the prevailing party below and give appropriate deference to how the trier of fact may have evaluated the credibility of witnesses, resolved conflicts in the evidence, and drawn reasonable inferences from the evidence
The Supreme Court's opinion makes clear that Courts of Appeal should take this approach in any case where the clear and convincing evidence standard applies, including punitive damages cases.