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Appellate Litigation

How Do I Seek Judicial Review of a California Administrative Agency or State Licensing Board Decision?

September 18, 2020

Authors: Aaron Gott and Kristen Harris

Administrative agencies in California can wield their regulatory power against you, making decisions that affect your rights through informal administrative proceedings without going through the courts. For example, many state licensing boards have the authority and jurisdiction to issue and revoke occupational licenses. In addition, these boards often have the authority to hold hearings, take evidence, and issue administrative decisions based on findings of fact. The good news is that you can still have your day in court: in California, you can seek judicial review of an administrative action through a petition for writ of administrative mandamus.

A petition for writ of administrative mandamus is filed in California Superior Court. It is a lot like an appeal in that it asks a court to review an administrative agency’s conclusions of facts and law in an order issued by the agency, but it has unique requirements and procedures.

What are the Requirements to File a Petition for Writ of Mandamus?

To challenge an agency’s decision, there must be a final agency decision, which resulted from a hearing that was required by law and where evidence was required to be taken, and the agency was vested with discretion in factual determinations. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.5(a). The petitioner must also have exhausted all their administrative remedies before seeking judicial review unless an exception to the exhaustion doctrine applies. Exceptions include cases in which an administrative remedy is unavailable, inadequate, or would be futile to pursue; the subject matter of the issue to be decided lies outside the agency’s jurisdiction; pursuing an administrative remedy would result in irreparable harm; or where the agency unreasonably delays making a decision.

What is the Standard of Review?

In deciding a writ of administrative mandamus, the court determines whether the agency conducted its proceeding beyond its jurisdiction, whether there was a fair trial, and whether the agency engaged in prejudicial abuse of discretion. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.5(b). The ultimate standard of review that applies to writs of administrative mandamus is either the “substantial evidence” or the “independent judgment” standard, depending on the issue. When the administrative mandamus proceeding involves a fundamental vested right, the court exercises its independent judgment. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.5(c). In all other cases, the court reviews the agency’s findings under the substantial evidence test. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.5(c).

Packed within these two standards is the abuse of discretion standard. A court will apply the abuse of discretion standard to determine whether the agency did not conduct the proceeding lawfully, the agency’s decision was not supported by the facts, or the findings were not supported by evidence. In other situations, the agency’s findings may not comport with the evidence. Under the court’s independent judgment review, abuse of discretion is established if the court determines that the findings are not supported by the weight of the evidence. But under the substantial evidence review, abuse of discretion is established if the court determines the findings are not supported by substantial evidence in light of the whole record.

Can I Submit New Evidence?

The court’s review of the record is confined to the evidence in the administrative record unless the court finds that relevant evidence could not have been produced with reasonable diligence or the evidence was improperly excluded at the agency’s hearing. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.5(e).

What is the Deadline to File a Petition for Writ of Administrative Mandamus?

When challenging a local agency decision, such as a municipal corporation, board, or commission, the petition for writ of administrative mandamus must be filed no later than 90 days after the agency’s decision becomes final. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.6. Other time limits may apply depending on what type of administrative body’s decision is being challenged so it is important to determine the deadline as quickly as possible following a final administrative decision.

What is the Goal of Administrative Mandamus?

While you cannot recover damages under a writ of mandamus, a favorable outcome will result in the court issuing a writ to the agency directing it to set aside its decision or it may direct the agency to reconsider its decision in light of the court’s opinion. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1094.5(f).

What Should I Do if I’m Involved in Administrative Proceedings Now?

You should contact us now, before the agency has made its final decision to ensure that all the relevant evidence is part of the record and that you’ve preserved your legal arguments. It is important that you also understand and exhaust all administrative remedies, which could include, for example, requesting review of a decision by the full agency before it becomes final.