Courts reviewing administrative decisions must take into account the standard of proof in the underlying proceeding.
After the Medical Board of California revoked Dr. Quinn Li’s medical license, he petitioned for a writ of administrative mandate challenging the Board’s decision. Under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, courts reviewing administrative decisions affecting a fundamental vested right, such as the revocation of a professional license, exercise independent judgment to determine if the decision is supported “by the weight of the evidence.” Li acknowledged the long-standing rule from Chamberlain v. Ventura County Civil Service Com. (1977) 69 Cal.App.3d 362 that courts exercising independent judgment must determine if the findings are supported by a preponderance of the evidence, even though the clear and convincing standard applies in the underlying proceeding. But he argued that Chamberlain was no longer good law in light of Conservatorship of O.B. (2020) 9 Cal.5th 989, which held that a court applying substantial evidence review must account for the standard of proof used in the underlying proceeding. The trial court denied relief. Li then sought a writ of mandate from the Court of Appeal, once more challenging the validity of Chamberlain in light of O.B.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Li and disagreed with Chamberlain. The court held that the independent judgment standard, like the substantial evidence standard, requires a reviewing court to view the record through the lens of the standard of proof that applied in the underlying proceeding. The court rejected Li’s implied abrogation argument, explaining that O.B. addressed substantial evidence review under section 1094.5, but not independent review. However, the Court agreed that it made no sense to apply different standards of review depending on whether a fundamental right was involved. The court observed that the phrase “weight of the evidence” can apply to the preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt standards of proof, and there was no evidence the Legislature intended trial courts to disregard the standard of proof in the underlying administrative proceeding for one of these standards and not the others. Accordingly, a trial court “must account for the standard of proof in the underlying administrative proceeding when exercising its independent judgment in reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the administrative agency’s findings.” While a reviewing court does not weigh the evidence to determine if the it meets standard of proof, it does assess whether a reasonable fact finder could have found that the standard was met. Despite the trial court’s error in applying Chamberlain, the court nonetheless denied writ relief because Dr. Li had failed to demonstrate that the trial court would have ruled differently had it considered the underlying clear and convincing standard of proof.
The bulletin describing this appellate decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.