Independent Judgement v. Substantial Evidence Standard of Review

Code of Civil Procedure §1094.5(c) establishes the two basic tests for determining whether the evidence supports the findings in an administrative writ of mandate proceeding:

  1. If authorized by law to exercise its independent judgment on the evidence, the court determines whether the findings are supported by the weight of the evidence. Sometimes called the “weight of evidence” test, the “trial de novo” test, and the “limited trial de novo” test in older literature and case law, it is referred to in later cases and here as the “independent judgment” test.
  2. In all other cases, the court determines whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence in light of the whole record. This is referred to as the “substantial evidence” test.

Which test applies depends on whether, in the particular case, the court is “authorized by law” to exercise its independent judgment on the evidence. Or whether it must assess the matter while deferromg to the judgment/discretion of the original factfinder  And then based upon the exercise of the appropriate test, determine whether the agency abused its discretion, warranting the issuance of the writ of administrative mandate. 

The court in three cases, set the rules for determining which test is used:

  1. Does a statute set forth which standard of review should be applied to findings of fact made by the agency?  If yes, use that standard.  If not, then proceed.
  2. When nonvested interests are affected by an administrative decision, the trial and appellate courts must review the case under the substantial evidence test. 
  3. When a vested fundamental right is substantially affected by the administrative decision of a statewide or local agency, the trial court must review the case under the independent judgment test. 
  4. When the California Constitution specifically confers adjudicative powers in cases involving a statewide agency, the substantial evidence test applies. 

The courts will decide on a case-by-case basis whether an administrative decision “substantially affects fundamental vested rights and thus requires independent judgment review.” The question of whether a vested fundamental right is substantially affected is most likely to arise when a license or permit is suspended or revoked or when a civil service employee is suspended or dismissed. Examples of cases involving fundamental vested rights include:

  1. License revocation.  This includes professional licenses, but also a driver's license or even a corporate license (i.e. corporate broker license).
  2. Granting or rescission of a conditional use permit.
  3. Regulatory taking of real property.
  4. Governmental employment.
  5. Welfare, Medi-Cal, Pension Benefits.
  6. Privileges at a Public Hospital.

Cases involving substantial evidence test include:

  1. License application or reinstatement denials.
  2. Review of an interim order of suspension by licensing board.
  3. Citations involving a civil penalty.
  4. Right to raise rent.
  5. Environmental impact reports.
  6. State Personnel Board.
  7. State Bar Court client security fund.
  8. Private hospital board.
  9. Employer rights.