An Important Case For Everyone Involved In Conservatorship And Care Issues – Conservatorship of Maria B. – Burden Of Proof On A Fundamental Right

The Conservatorship of Maria B. is an important new conservatorship case on several different issues. Conservatorship of the Person and Estate of Maria B., from the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Case Number G047889, July 31, 2013.

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Maria is a developmentally disabled adult. Maria’s doctors recommended a hysterectomy and oophorectomy to treat Maria’s condition. Maria’s mother is the limited conservator who filed a petition with the court for an order authorizing the surgery. The court in part discussed different burdens of proof and which one applied in this circumstance. In pertinent part the court held that since the surgery would impact a fundamental right, i.e., Maria’s ability to bear children, on her petition for court authorization to have the surgery performed, as conservator Maria’s mother had to satisfy a clear and convincing burden of proof.

The court held that the default standard is the preponderance of the evidence, but that courts nonetheless apply the heightened clear and convincing evidence standard in a variety of cases when important or fundamental rights are at stake.

The court concluded that the clear and convincing evidence standard was required because the surgery would have a substantial and irreversible impact on Maria’s fundamental opportunity to bear children.

Specifically the court held that the conservator of Maria must present clear and convincing evidence to show that the surgery is medically necessary under section 2357 because the medical treatment impacts a fundamental right.

The court clarified that the clear and convincing standard is the exception rather than the norm under section 2357 but left the determination of the appropriate burden to be made on a case by case basis.

You might also be aware that the standard burden of proof for the establishment of a conservatorship also is clear and convincing evidence and a proposed conservatee has the right to have a petition for conservatorship determined by a jury.

The court in Maria B. discussed different burdens of proof:

The preponderance of the evidence burden is essentially more likely than not.

The beyond a reasonable doubt burden is designed to exclude as nearly as possible the likelihood of an erroneous judgment and imposes almost the entire risk of error upon the party bearing the burden of proof.

The clear and convincing burden is an intermediate standard that increases the burden on the party seeking relief requiring a finding of high probability, based on evidence so clear as to leave no substantial doubt and sufficiently strong to command the unhesitating assent of every reasonable mind.

The court did not describe or attempt to list the universe of fundamental rights that could arise in conservatorship cases. Those issues will undoubtedly arise in other cases. It was also not an issue in the case whether or not Maria was entitled to a jury trial on the petition for authorization to have the surgery performed which would have a substantial and irreversible impact on Maria’s fundamental opportunity or right to bear children.

Issues and holdings in Maria B. clearly will be important in other conservatorship and care-related cases.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco)
Trust, estate, conservatorship and elder litigation and administrations; civil, business, real estate, injury, product liability, public entity and professional liability litigation; dispute resolution and mediator; risk management, D&O, boards and committees, and governance.