Substantial Evidence Standard


The findings of fact made in the lower court shall be set aside on appeal if they are unsupported by substantial evidence.  In Sarr v. Gonzales, 127 Fed. Appx. 815 (6th Cir. 2005), the court stated that many courts have recognized that substantial evidence review is different from clearly erroneous review.  Cases that require reversal and affirmance under the substantial evidence standard also require reversal and affirmance under the clearly erroneous standard.  However, in a small subset of cases, a case which needs reversal under the clearly erroneous standard might still need affirmance under the “compelled to conclude to the contrary” substantial evidence standard.

Substantial evidence refers to evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion.  In Mareno v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8575 (S.D. Ala. Apr. 8, 1999), substantial evidence is defined as “more than a scintilla but less than preponderance,” and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”

The substantially evidence standard was originally imported into administrative law from cases dealing with the review of jury verdicts.  Therefore, this standard of substantial evidence involves a large amount of deference to the relevant fact-finder and a more deferential standard than the “clearly erroneous” standard, which the appellate courts use for reviewing factual determinations by lower court judges.  In Menendez-Donis v. Ashcroft, 360 F.3d 915 (8th Cir. 2004), the court stated that under the substantial evidence standard the appellate court cannot substitute its determination for that of the administrative fact-finder due to the reason that the appellate court believes that the fact-finder is clearly wrong.  Instead, before the appellate court shall reverse, it must find that it would not be possible for any reasonable fact-finder to come to the conclusion reached by the administrator.  The court further listed three conditions that a reviewing court must examine before upholding the factual findings under the substantial evidence standard of review.  The three conditions are:

  • The factual finding must be supported by some substantial level of evidence that does not require rising to the level of a preponderance.
  • When the entire record is examined, the evidence should be substantial: Contrary evidence shall not be simply neglected on review.
  • The evidence should be such that it would be possible for a reasonable fact-finder to reach the same conclusions that the administrative fact-finder did.

If any one of the three conditions is not met, the administrative decision should be reversed.

Substantial evidence, for the purpose of determining the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction, is evidence of sufficient force and character that it will, with reasonable and material certainty and precision, compel a conclusion one way or the other without resort to speculation or conjecture. In State v. Black, 328 N.C. 191, 400 S.E.2d 398 (1991), the court held that a guilty verdict will be upheld if the prosecution presents substantial evidence of each element of the offense charged.

When a case is decided solely on the basis of written evidence by a trial court, a reviewing court has the same opportunity to weigh the evidence as the trial court did, and may reach an independent conclusion on review, although giving some weight to the findings made by the trial court.

When presented with an issue of mixed questions of law and fact, a supreme court will defer to the factual findings made by the trial court so long as they are supported by competent, substantial evidence, but will review de novo the application of the law to those facts.  In Lynch v. Astrue, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2638 (N.D. Iowa Jan. 13, 2010), it was stated that an appellant does not waive his or her right to appeal questions of law or mixed questions of law and fact by failing to object to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation. In addition, legal conclusions will be reviewed de novo, regardless of whether an appellant objected to a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation.  De novo review is non-deferential and generally allows a reviewing court to make an independent review of the entire matter.