Cite as S254938
Filed July 27, 2020
Supreme Court of California
By Daniel C. Kim
Weintraub Tobin Chediak Coleman Grodin Law Corporation
Headnote: Conservatorships – Findings Requiring Clear and Convincing Evidence – Standard of Review on Appeal
Summary: Where a trial court decision must be supported by clear and convincing evidence, on appeal the standard of review must reflect that heightened burden of proof.
O.B. had autism spectrum disorder. Her mother petitioned for a limited conservatorship. At trial, O.B. relied on the expert testimony of Dr. Khoie, who opined that O.B. was not a candidate for a conservatorship and had the potential to live independently with support, and on the testimony of Mr. Donati, the probate investigator who opined that he did not think the conservatorship would benefit O.B. In support of the petition O.B.’s mother testified that O.B. needed significant assistance with daily tasks, could not care for herself, and was susceptible to undue influence by others. Two doctors also opined that a limited conservatorship was proper and that O.B. lacked capacity. The trial court found that, as required, clear and convincing evidence supported the imposition of the conservatorship, and granted the petition. The Court of Appeal, Second District, applying the “substantial evidence” standard of review, affirmed, stating that the testimony of one witness can constitute substantial evidence, and that the mother’s testimony alone was substantial evidence confirming the appellant’s inability to perform critical tasks. The Court of Appeal stated that the “clear and convincing” burden of proof is only for trial court use, and that it “disappears” on appeal.
The Supreme Court reversed. The “clear and convincing” burden, as opposed to the mere “preponderance of the evidence” burden, applies at the trial court level where particularly important individual rights or interests are at stake. On review, however, the Courts of Appeal are split as to whether the “substantial evidence” standard of appellate review applies to an evidentiary burden requiring “clear and convincing” evidence. If the “substantial evidence” standard of review applies it compromises the reviewing court’s ability to correct error, because the distinction between the preponderance of the evidence burden and the clear and convincing evidence burden is lost. Henceforth, the standard applied on review to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a finding requiring clear and convincing evidence should be 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.