Court of Appeal:
Third District, Repudiating Decisions Going Back to 1977, Says ‘Weight of Evidence’ Not Synonymous With ‘Preponderance of the Evidence’; Judge Must Use Same Standard As Administrative Agency
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A trial court, in acting on a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus, must use the same standard of proof that applied in the proceedings below, the Third District Court of Appeal declared Friday, repudiating the notion that an examination of the “weight of the evidence,” as required by the governing statute, necessitates use of a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
“We recognize this conclusion breaks with over four decades of established law,” Justice Ronald B. Robie acknowledged.
He said the same “clear and convincing evidence” test applicable in Medical Board of California proceedings applied to Superior Court proceedings in which the board’s decisions were challenged.
Meaning of Phrase
At issue was the meaning of the phrase “weight of evidence” as used in Code of Civil Procedure §1094.5(c), which says:
“Where it is claimed that the findings are not supported by the evidence, in cases in which the court is authorized by law to exercise its independent judgment on the evidence, abuse of discretion is established if the court determines that the findings are not supported by the weight of the evidence.”
In examining those findings, Robie said in Friday’s opinion, “a trial court must account for the standard of proof in the underlying administrative proceeding when exercising its independent judgment in reviewing sufficiency of the evidence supporting the administrative agency’s findings.”
Robie’s view conflicts with that expressed in this district’s 1977 opinion in Chamberlain v. Ventura County Civil Service Commission, the reasoning of which was echoed in this district’s 1982 decision in Ettinger v. Board of Medical Quality Assurance.
In Chamberlain, Justice Rodney K. Potter (now deceased) declared:
“A decision which is contrary to the weight of the evidence is one which is contrary to the preponderance of the evidence. The purpose for which a court normally weighs the evidence is to determine which way it preponderates on a given issue.”
In Ettinger, Acting Presiding Justice Clarke Stephens (also deceased) wrote:
“The standard of proof to be applied at a superior court writ proceeding inquiring into the validity of a final administrative order is the weight of the evidence standard….This standard is considered to be synonymous with the preponderance of the evidence standard….However, since the superior court writ proceeding is merely a review of the administrative proceeding, the standard of proof used in the original proceeding is completely irrelevant.”
“The pertinent question in Chamberlain and Ettinger was, and is before us today, what meaning the Legislature intended to attach to the weight of the evidence phrase in section 1094.5.”
“For almost 45 years, California trial courts have followed the rale laid down by Chamberlain that a trial court exercising its independent judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 must determine whether the administrative agency’s findings are supported by the preponderance of the evidence, notwithstanding the clear and convincing evidence standard of proof applied in the underlying administrative proceeding….That rule was born out of the appellate court’s interpretation that the weight of the evidence phrase in subdivision (c) of section 1094.5 is synonymous with the preponderance of the evidence standard of proof….No appellate court has disagreed with Chamberlain or its progeny and our Supreme Court has not, to our knowledge, reviewed or rendered a decision on the merits of the statutory interpretation.”
Supreme Court Ruling
The jurist rejected the contention by the petitioner, internist Quinn Li, that the denial by Sacramento Superior Court James P. Arguelles of his motion to stay discipline by the Medical Board of California contravenes last year’s holding by the California Supreme Court in Conservatorship of O.B. which, he maintained impliedly abrogates the holdings in Chamberlain and Ettinger. Robie said Li put forth “a confusing argument” in his discussion of a case that was, on its face, not in point.
“Our Supreme Court did not…, in Conservatorship of O.B. consider or decide the scope of the independent judgment standard of review in section 1094.5—the standard of review at issue in this proceeding,” the justice said.
He did draw upon Supreme Court precedent, however, in noting that in State Bar and judicial disciplinary cases, in independently evaluating the facts, has employed the “clear and convincing” evidence standard applicable to the State Bar Court and the Commission on Judicial Performance.
“The phrase weight of the evidence simply has not been uniformly used as a synonym for preponderance of the evidence in California common law,” Robie wrote.
He went on to say:
“Nothing in the legislative history indicates that the Legislature intended to build a preponderance of the evidence standard of proof into the independent judgment standard of review requiring the trial court to disregard the standard of proof in the underlying administrative proceeding. By prescribing that the trial court shall review ‘the weight of the evidence,’ the Legislature did not prescribe by what weight the evidence shall be reviewed. Logic and the public policy considerations…lead to the conclusion that the trial court must account for the standard of proof in the underlying proceeding when exercising its independent judgment under section 1094.5.”
Notwithstanding that conclusion, Li’s writ petition was denied.
The doctor’s medical license had been revoked based on a finding of “clear and convincing evidence of one extreme departure from the standard of care” of a patient, but the revocation was stayed, with Li placed on three years’ probation, subject to conditions.
Robie said that Li failed to show that a different result would have been reached had the trial court employed the clear and convincing evidence standard.
The case is Li v. Superior Court, C092584.
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