Standards of Review in the Appellate Courts (continued – Section B)

B. REVIEW OF FACTUAL DECISIONS

1. Generally, upon direct review, where the judgment or order appealed is based entirely on resolution of a factual dispute, the appellate court must affirm if the trial court’s decision is supported by competent substantial evidence. Bellino v. W & W Lumber and Bldg. Supplies, Inc., 902 So.2d 829 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005); Keystone Creations, Inc. v. City of Delray Beach, 890 So.2d 1119 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004) (trial court’s findings of fact reviewable under competent substantial evidence standard).

2. Under Florida law, the competent substantial evidence test also applies to findings of fact made by trial judges in non-jury trials. See Berlin v. Pecora, 968 So.2d 47 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007).

3. In Shaw v. Shaw, 334 So.2d 13, 16 (Fla. 1976), the Florida Supreme Court explained the application of the competent substantial evidence test to findings of fact in non-jury trials as follows:

“[I]t is not the function of the appellate court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court through re-evaluation of the testimony and evidence from the record on appeal before it. The test…is whether the judgment of the trial court is supported by competent evidence. Subject to the appellate court’s right to reject ‘inherently incredible and improbable testimony or evidence,’ it is not the prerogative of an appellate court, upon a de novo consideration of the record, to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court…”

4. The competent substantial evidence test has also been applied in the review of trial court evidentiary hearings. See Booker v. State, 969 So.2d 186 (Fla. 2007), and in the review of administrative decisions based on findings of fact, see Leedham v. State Unemployment Appeals Com’n, 950 So.2d 475 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007).

NOTE: Florida law provides a stricter standard for the review of judicial fact finding in non-jury trials and evidentiary hearings than the corresponding standard that applies to factual findings under federal law. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) provides that “findings of fact shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.”

NOTE: Before an appellate court can apply the competent substantial evidence test to the decisions of the trial judge in any non-jury trial or evidentiary hearing, the court must first determine whether the decision was actually based on a finding of fact. Some trial court decisions are actually the resolution of mixed issues of law and facts, and others are actually conclusions or inferences drawn from the facts.

5. The competent substantial evidence standard applies to a trial court decision that resolves conflicting evidence. It does not apply to inferences or conclusions drawn from the facts.

6. A finding of fact based on the trial judge’s acceptance of one interpretation of undisputed evidence is subject to appellate review by the clearly erroneous standard. Bradley v. Waldrop, 611 So.2d 31 (Fla. 1st DCA 1992). See also Sharrard v. Ligon, 892 So.2d 1092 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004).

7. The appellate courts have also held that the competent substantial evidence test also does not apply when a trial judge has made a factual decision based entirely on submission of written evidence. The considerations which normally govern the review of factual decisions are simply not present if the trial judge has made a decision solely on written evidence. Under these circumstances, the appellate court is in the same position as the trial court in reviewing the evidence. See Holmes v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 891 So.2d 1188 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005).

8. Questions of credibility and weight to be given to the evidence are within the exclusive province of the trier of fact. Such questions are best resolved in the fact-finding process in the trial court, and not the appellate process. As long as evidence is legally sufficient, the appellate court may not substitute its judgment for that of the trier of fact on these matters. See Tibbs v. State, 397 So.2d 1120 (Fla. 1980). The sufficiency of the evidence is, of course, a proper issue before the appellate court. Id.

9. The amount of damages has also been held to be an issue that is within the exclusive province of the trier of fact. In non-jury cases, the courts have held that a trial judge’s award of damages will not be overturned if it is supported by competent substantial evidence. Emerald Pointe Property Owners’ Ass ‘n, Inc. v. Commercial Construction Industries, Inc., 978 So.2d 873 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008).

10. An even stricter standard is applied to the amount of damages set by a jury. An award of damages by a jury will not be disturbed on appeal unless it is manifestly so excessive as to shock the judicial conscience or indicative of prejudice, passion or corruption on the part of the jury. Tobias v. Osorio, 681 So.2d 905 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996).

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