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California Supreme Court: Clear and Convincing Standard Of Proof Does Not Disappear On Appeal In Conservatorship Case

In a July 27, 2020 opinion, Conservatorship of O.B., the California Supreme Court reversed a decision implementing a conservatorship, holding that an appellate court must account for the clear and convincing evidence standard of proof when addressing a claim that the evidence does not support a finding made under this standard.

The Conservatorship Proceedings in the California Probate Court

In this case, the California probate court appointed T.B. and C.B as limited co-conservators for O.B., a young woman with autism.  T.B. and C.B. are O.B.’s mother and sister, respectively.

A contested evidentiary hearing was held in the California probate court to determine whether a limited conservatorship should be imposed for O.B.  Several witnesses testified regarding their observations and interactions with O.B.  A psychologist and an investigator for the Santa Barbara County Public Guardian’s Office each testified that O.B. was not a proper candidate for a limited conservatorship or that a limited conservatorship was not necessary.  As summarized by the California Supreme Court:

Before ruling on a limited conservatorship, the judge stated that he had “been involved in numerous hearings, and [O.B.] has been at all of them or most of them. So in addition to some of the different witnesses I am entitled to base my decision based in part on my own observation of [O.B.] at the proceedings.” The judge found that a limited conservatorship was “appropriate” and appointed T.B. and C.B. as limited coconservators. The parties were asked if any requested a statement of decision. No one did, and the judge did not otherwise explain in detail how he had arrived at his findings. He said, “I can go through and comment on everybody’s testimony. I don’t see any reason to do that. The reviewing court can look at the record.

 

The California Court of Appeal Affirmed The Decision

O.B. challenged the probate court order.

O.B. argued on appeal that that the evidence presented to the probate court was insufficient, explaining that the clear and convincing standard of proof applies to the decision to appoint a limited conservator and that the Court of Appeal must apply this standard in determining whether substantial evidence supports the judgment.  The Court of Appeal found the evidence sufficient and observed that, contrary to O.B.’s argument:

‘The “clear and convincing” standard . . . is for the edification and guidance of the trial court and not a standard for appellate review. [Citations.] “‘The sufficiency of evidence to establish a given fact, where the law requires proof of the fact to be clear and convincing, is primarily a question for the trial court to determine, and if there is substantial evidence to support its conclusion, the determination is not open to review on appeal.’ [Citations.]” [Citation.] Thus, on appeal from a judgment required to be based upon clear and convincing evidence, “the clear and convincing test disappears . . . [and] the usual rule of conflicting evidence is applied, giving full effect to the respondent’s evidence, however slight, and disregarding the appellant’s evidence, however strong.”

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the order establishing a limited conservatorship.  The California Supreme Court granted review.

What is A Burden of Proof Under California Law?

A “‘[b]urden of proof’ means the obligation of a party to establish by evidence a requisite degree of belief concerning a fact in the mind of the trier of fact or the court.” (Evid. Code, § 115.)

“The burden of proof may require a party to . . . establish the existence or nonexistence of a fact by a preponderance of the evidence, by clear and convincing proof, or by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Clear And Convincing Standard of Proof For The Appointment of A Conservator In California

California Probate Code section 1801(e) requires that: “The standard of proof for the appointment of a conservator pursuant to this section shall be clear and convincing evidence.”

What Is The Clear And Convincing Evidence Standard Of Proof In California?

The standard of proof known as clear and convincing evidence demands a degree of certainty greater than that involved with the preponderance standard, but less than what is required by the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

This intermediate standard “requires a finding of high probability.” (In re Angelia P., supra, 28 Cal.3d at p. 919; see also CACI No. 201 [“Certain facts must be proved by clear and convincing evidence . . . . This means the party must persuade you that it is highly probable that the fact is true”].)

How Does A California Appellate Court Address A Claim of Insufficient Evidence Associated With a Finding Requiring Clear and Convincing Evidence?

The California Supreme Court held that: “In general, when presented with a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence associated with a finding requiring clear and convincing evidence, the court must determine whether the record, viewed as a whole, contains substantial evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could have made the finding of high probability demanded by this standard of proof.”

In reaching this holding, the California Supreme Court acknowledged the split of authority among the Courts of Appeal, and offered several rationales for application of its ruling that the court must determine whether the record, viewed as a whole, contains substantial evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could have made the finding of high probability demanded by the clear and convincing standard of proof.

Logic Supports The Application of The Clear and Convincing Standard On Appeal

First, the California Supreme Court determined that it makes logical sense that when reviewing a finding that demands clear and convincing evidence, an appellate court must determine whether the evidence reasonably could have led to a finding made with the specific degree of confidence required by this standard – not to simply throw the standard out the window.

Taking the clear and convincing standard into account in this context is also logically consistent with the principle that an appellate court addressing a claim of insufficient proof reviews the record for substantial evidence supporting the challenged finding. The court stated:

Substantial evidence is evidence that is “of ponderable legal significance,” “reasonable in nature, credible, and of solid value,” and “‘substantial’ proof of the essentials which the law requires in a particular case.”  Even if evidence is capable of being regarded as “credible,” “reasonable,” and “solid,” to amount to substantial evidence it also must be “of ponderable legal significance.” (In re Teed’s Estate, at p. 644.) And whether evidence is “of ponderable legal significance” (ibid.) cannot be properly evaluated in situations such as the one at bar without accounting for the heightened standard of proof that applied before the trial court.

Appropriate Degree of Appellate Scrutiny

Second, the California Supreme Court considered that keeping the clear and convincing standard in mind when reviewing for sufficiency of the evidence helps ensure that an appropriate degree of appellate scrutiny attaches to findings to which this standard applies.

The clear and convincing standard is used for various determinations where “‘particularly important individual interests or rights are at stake,'”  such as the implementation of a conservatorship under California law.

That is to say, the significant consequences of an erroneous true finding when these interests or rights are involved — such as an improper deportation, an unnecessary involuntary commitment, or an unjustified termination of parental rights — support the application of a heightened standard of proof, relative to the preponderance standard … when a review of the record establishes that no reasonable factfinder could have found a matter proved to a degree of high probability, appellate intervention reaffirms that the interests involved are of special importance, that their deprivation requires a greater burden to be surmounted, and that the judicial system operates in a coordinated fashion to ensure as much.

An Appellate Court Does Not Reweigh The Evidence

A California appellate court reviewing a finding made pursuant to the clear and convincing standard does not reweigh the evidence itself.

In assessing how the evidence reasonably could have been evaluated by the trier of fact, an appellate court reviewing such a finding is to view the record in the light most favorable to the judgment below; it must indulge reasonable inferences that the trier of fact might have drawn from the evidence; it must accept the factfinder’s resolution of conflicting evidence; and it may not insert its own views regarding the credibility of witnesses in place of the assessments conveyed by the judgment.

In conclusion, the California Supreme Court summarized:

To summarize, we hold that an appellate court must account for the clear and convincing standard of proof when addressing a claim that the evidence does not support a finding made under this standard. 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. Because the Court of Appeal below believed that the clear and convincing standard of proof “‘”disappears”‘” on appeal (Conservatorship of O.B., supra, 32 Cal.App.5th at p. 633), we remand the cause to that court for it to reevaluate the sufficiency of the evidence in light of the clarification we have provided.

The California Supreme Court also rejected the argument that the legislature, in providing for limited conservatorships and specifying in section 1801 of the California Probate Code that the appointment of a conservator requires clear and convincing evidence, intended for appellate courts to completely disregard this standard of proof when reviewing the record developed before the probate court for substantial evidence.

California conservatorships require the heightened clear and convincing standard of proof because a person’s rights are being removed.  This heightened clear and convincing standard of proof on review makes sure that the imposition of a conservatorship is supported by substantial evidence in California courts.  Read about another California conservatorship case here.

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Merwyn J. Miller

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San Mateo County

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Stanislaus County (Modesto)

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San Diego County

Merwyn J. Miller

Los Angeles County

Stewart J. Levin

San Mateo County

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San Mateo County

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San Bernardino County

Fred W. Edwards

Stanislaus County (Modesto)

Thomas Bonte