Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court ()

The Florida Supreme Court set a relatively low standard of proof Thursday for state agencies seeking civil penalties.

In an environmental protection case involving the South Florida Water Management District, the high court reversed a decision by the Fifth District Court of Appeal applying a clear and convincing evidence standard when imposing a penalty on an Osceola County developer.

The trial court sided with the West Palm Beach-based district, which accused RLI Live Oak LLC of unauthorized dredging, construction activity, diking, culvert installation and filling wetlands.

The trial court awarded the district $81,900 in civil penalties based on a preponderance of the evidence. The Supreme Court said that standard of proof was sufficient.

In opting for the higher standard, the Fifth District relied on Department of Banking & Finance v. Osborne Stern, a 1996 state Supreme Court decision that imposed the clear and convincing standard.

The water district, attorney general’s office and state Department of Environmental Protection argued the Fifth District overextended Osborne.

Justice Jorge Labarga, author of the opinion, agreed. He noted a preponderance of the evidence standard—defined as the greater weight of the evidence—is the applicable burden of proof in civil cases.

The same standard is used in cases of fraud and other quasi-criminal wrongdoing, he said.

Labarga saw Osborne as a unique situation. When the Supreme Court considered Osborne, it rephrased the term “civil fines” as “administrative fines.”

“Consistent with the applicable statute, Osborne repeatedly refers to administrative fines,” Labarga wrote. “Osborne also states that ‘the existence of evidence in the record supporting the hearing officer’s findings is irrelevant to whether the fact finder held the department to the correct standard of proof at the administrative proceeding.’ ”

He concluded that where the Legislature authorizes state agencies by statute to recover a “civil penalty” but does not specify the agency’s burden of proof, the standard should be preponderance of the evidence.

The court was unanimous.

RLI Oak attorney Chris Bryant of Oertel, Fernandez, Bryant & Atkinson in Tallahassee said his firm would review the decision with the client.

“We will evaluate whether a motion for rehearing is warranted,” Bryant said.

Carolyn Stroud Ansay, in-house attorney for the water management district in West Palm Beach, had no comment by deadline.