Administrative Law,  Standard of Review

A standard of review that’s a mouthful

Appellate Attorney Jeanne Collachia is both witty and correct with this statement on her website: “Just like there are three things you need to know about real estate, there are three things you need to know about appeals — Standard of Review — Standard of Review — Standard of Review.” Naturally, I have stressed the standard of review too, with many posts at least touching on subtleties in the standard of review or disputes over which standard applies. Determining the applicable standard can sometimes be tricky. Sometimes, multiple standards apply, each applicable to a different stage of reasoning.

Now, imagine you’re an accountant representing himself on a writ of administrative mandamus, challenging the revocation of your Certified Public Accountant license. You’re not a lawyer, so you would probably appreciate an easy-to-understand, easy-to-apply standard of review. But you wouldn’t get it, as the self-represented plaintiff and appellant in Cassidy v. California Board of Accountancy, case no. G046663 (Fourth District, Sept. 9, 2013, publication ordered Oct. 16, 2013, learned the hard way:

When considering a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus, a court (whether a trial court in the first instance or an appellate court on appeal from the trial court?s decision) considers the administrative agency?s findings and decision to determine whether they are supported by the evidence and may also consider whether the agency abused its discretion in imposing its penalty. (Cal. Administrative Hearing Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 2d ed. 2010) § 8.107, p. 495.)
Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 delimits the scope of the trialcourt?s inquiry. The trial court considers whether the respondent agency lacked jurisdiction; “whether there was a fair trial; and whether there was any prejudicial abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion is established if the respondent has not proceeded in the manner required by law, the . . . decision is not supported by the findings, or the findings are not supported by the evidence.” (Id., subd. (b).) In reviewing the findings, the trial court exercises its independent judgment if statutorily required to do so or if the administrative decision involves a “fundamental vested right” (2 Cal. Administrative Mandamus (Cont.Ed.Bar 3d ed. 2011) § 16.52, p. 640), such as revocation of a professional license (Bixby v. Pierno (1971) 4 Cal.3d 130, 146). In such cases, “abuse of discretion is established if the court determines that the findings are not supported by the weight of the evidence.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5, subd. (c).) Nonetheless, “[i]n exercising its independent judgment, a trial court must afford a strong presumption of correctness concerning the administrative findings, and the party challenging the administrative decision bears the burden of convincing the court that the administrative findings are contrary to the weight of the evidence.” (Fukuda v. City of Angels (1999) 20 Cal.4th 805, 817 (Fukuda).) “The scope of the trial before the superior court is not an unqualified or unlimited trial de novo, but the trial proceeds upon a consideration of the record of the administrative proceedings which is received in evidence and marked as an exhibit.” (Borror v. Department of Investment (1971) 15 Cal.App.3d 531, 537; see also Helene Curtis, Inc. v. Los Angeles County Assessment Appeals Bds. (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 29, 37 [in Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5 proceeding, evidence limited to administrative record with the narrow, discretionary exception set forth in subd. (e) for evidence that could not reasonably have been produced or was improperly excluded at administrative hearing].)
An appellate court applies the following standards of review to a trial court?s denial of a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus. First, if the trial court exercised its independent judgment, we review the record to determine whether the court?s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, resolving all evidentiary conflicts and drawing all legitimate and reasonable inferences in favor of the court?s decision. (Fukuda, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 824 [“Even when, as here, the trial court is required to review an administrative decision under the independent judgment standard of review, the standard of review on appeal of the trial court?s determination is the substantial evidence test”]; Bixby v. Pierno, supra, 4 Cal.3d 130, 143, fn. 10 [“After the trial court has exercised its independent judgment upon the weight of the evidence, an appellate court need only review the record to determine whether the trial court?s findings are supported by substantial evidence”].) Second, “to the extent pure questions of law (e.g., jurisdiction) were decided at the trial court upon undisputed facts, a de novo standard will apply at the appellate level.” (Anserv Ins. Services, Inc.. v. Kelso (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 197, 204.) Third, we review de novo whether the agency?s imposition of aparticular penalty on the petitioner constituted an abuse of discretion by the agency. (Antelope Valley Press v. Poizner (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 839, 851; Szmaciarz v. State Personnel Bd. (1978) 79 Cal.App.3d 904, 921.) But we will not disturb the agency’s choice of penalty absent “an arbitrary, capricious or patently abusive exercise of discretion” by the administrative agency. (Cadilla v. Board of Medical Examiners (1972) 26 Cal.App.3d 961, 966.)
So, how do you suppose this pro per appellant fared? Unsurprisingly, the Court of Appeal observed that “On appeal, Cassidy in many respects misapprehends the scope of our review.” No doubt, he considered it “legalese.”