On appellate review in a conservatorship proceeding of a trial court order that must be based on clear and convincing evidence, is the reviewing court simply required to find substantial evidence to support the trial court’s order or must it find substantial evidence from which the trial court could have made the necessary findings based on clear and convincing evidence?
Opinion By: Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye (unanimous decision)
Held: When reviewing a finding made pursuant to the clear and convincing standard of proof, an appellate court must review for substantial evidence to the heightened degree of certainty required by this standard. O.B. was a young woman with autism spectrum disorder. Her mother and sister filed a petition requesting that they be appointed as limited coconservators, and O.B. objected. After a contested evidentiary hearing, the judge applied the clear and convincing evidence standard and found that a limited conservatorship was necessary. O.B. appealed, arguing in part that the evidence did not clearly and convincingly establish that a limited conservatorship was warranted. The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that the clear and convincing standard is for the guidance of the trial court and that “on appeal from a judgment required to be based upon clear and convincing evidence, the clear and convincing test disappears . . . .” The Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed and remanded. The Supreme Court acknowledged there was a significant split of authority among the Courts of Appeal on how an appellate court reviews the sufficiency of the evidence associated with a finding made by the trier of fact pursuant to the clear and convincing evidence standard. The court also recognized that it had provided somewhat different descriptions of the reviewing court’s role in evaluating a finding requiring clear and convincing evidence. In this case the Supreme Court clarified that, “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 fact finder could have found it highly probable that the fact was true.” Because the Court of Appeal below took the position that the standard of proof “disappears” on appeal when it rejected O.B.’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, the judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. [Editor’s Note: The court disapproved a number of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal opinions that could be read to state that the clear and convincing standard of proof before the trial court has no effect on appellate review for sufficiency of the evidence.]
As in criminal appeals involving a challenge a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, an appellate court reviewing a finding made pursuant to the clear and convincing standard does not reweigh the evidence. The court’s approach in this case also harmonizes with the firmly established rule in criminal cases that the prosecution’s burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt affects how an appellate court reviews the record for substantial evidence. The critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction does not require a court to ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Out of an abundance of caution, the court used this opportunity to emphasize that, as in criminal appeals involving a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, an appellate court reviewing a finding made 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 fact finder’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.” (Conservatorship of O.B. (2020) 9 Cal.5th 989 (S254938).) This case was decided on 7/27/2020.