Court Clarifies Standard of Proof in Civil Proceedings that Involve Monetary Penalties

By Jacek Stramski

Today the Florida Supreme Court unanimously clarified that where the Legislature authorizes a state agency to impose a civil penalty in a court of competent jurisdiction, the agency’s burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence unless a different evidentiary standard is provided by law. South Florida Water Management District v. RLI Live Oak, LLC (SC12-2336).
The case began as a dispute between the South Florida Water Management District (District) and RLI Live Oak, LLC (RLI) over whether property owned by RLI contained wetlands and therefore came under jurisdiction of the District. Following a bench trial, the trial court found for the District and awarded it civil penalties. The 5th District Court of Appeal (DCA) reversed the trial court, holding that the trial court improperly relied on a preponderance of the evidence standard to support its findings. RLI Live Oak, LLC v. South Florida Water Management District, 99 So. 3d 560 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012). The 5th DCA, relying Dep’t of Banking and Finance v. Osborne Stern & Co., 670 So. 2d 932 (Fla. 1996), where the Supreme Court specified that an agency is required to meet a clear and convincing burden of proof to impose an administrative penalty, held that the clear and convincing standard applied to civil penalties as well.
The Supreme Court reversed the 5th DCA, and clarified that the holding in Osborne was limited to administrative penalties. The Court held that in civil proceedings, where the statutory authorization to seek civil penalties does not specify an applicable burden of proof, an agency must meet its burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence and not by clear and convincing evidence.