“Any evidence” is a highly deferential standard of review that appeals courts apply to a trial court’s findings of fact. Appeals courts accept a trial court’s findings of fact, and will not disturb them, if any evidence supports them. Put slightly differently, appeals courts accept a trial court’s findings of fact unless they are “clearly erroneous.” Georgia courts hold that these two phrasings of the standard are functionally identical. See Moses v. Pennebaker, 312 Ga. App. 623, 629 (719 SE2d 521) (2011) (“[F]actual findings made at a bench trial should only be set aside where they are clearly erroneous, and the trial court’s findings of fact should be upheld if there is any evidence to sustain them…. The clearly erroneous test is the same as the any evidence rule.”) (citation and quotation marks omitted).
Because the “any evidence” standard of review is highly deferential, and decisions are rarely overturned when the standard applies, much depends on what constitutes a “finding of fact” (to be reviewed under the any evidence standard) as opposed to an application of law to the facts (reviewed de novo). The opinions of the Supreme Court in Silva v. State, 278 Ga. 506 (604 SE2d 171) (2004), illustrate this conflict. The trial court granted a motion to suppress evidence (a brick of marijuana) obtained from under the seat of a car at a traffic stop. The arresting officer testified that he saw the defendant place his hand under the seat, and looked under the seat because a weapon might be there. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding on these facts that the officer’s search was reasonable, “as a reasonably prudent officer in his circumstances would be warranted in believing that his safety was in danger,” and the Supreme Court affirmed. Id. at 507. Justice Benham, dissenting, pointed out that the trial court had “stat[ed] its belief that the officer did not have a ‘particular reason’ to think the defendant might be dangerous.” Id. at 509. This “factual determination,” in Justice Benham’s view, required application of the any evidence standard and affirmance of the trial court. Id. The majority, however, stated that “[t]he only conclusion that can be reached on review is that the trial court credited the officer’s testimony, believed that he was indeed looking for a weapon, and decided the motion on an issue of law rather than on any issue of conflicting evidence,” and therefore “[t]he de novo standard of review was the correct one to be applied.” Id. at 508.
Any Evidence vs. Substantial Evidence
Some statutes use the phrase “substantial evidence,” and in the context of the Administrative Procedure Act, OCGA § 50-13-19(h)(5), Georgia courts have ruled that “the substantial-evidence standard is effectively the same as the any-evidence standard.” Emory Univ. v. Levitas, 260 Ga. 894, 897 (401 SE2d 691) (1991). In contrast, the statute governing certificates of need for health care services facilities specifically provides that “substantial evidence” in judicial review of such certificates “shall be in excess of the ‘any evidence’ standard contained in other statutory provisions.” OCGA § 31-6-44.1. See also Northeast Ga. Med. Ctr. Inc. v. Winder HMA, Inc., 303 Ga. App. 50 (693 SE2d 110) (2010) (applying this provision).
The Georgia courts’ unification of the “any evidence,” “substantial evidence,” and “clearly erroneous” standards can be justified in that it reduces complexity and downplays small differences in wording. See Van Boxel v. Journal Co. Employees’ Pension Trust, 836 F.2d 1048, 1052-53 (7th Cir. 1988) (Posner, J.) (“There are more verbal distinctions among the standards of judicial review than there are real differences. It is easier to multiply standards than actually to differentiate among them—to keep them from overlapping—in the setting of a particular case…. [F]lexibility in the scope of judicial review need not require a proliferation of different standards of review….”). On the other hand, it is hard not to agree with Judge Beasley’s concurrence in City of Atlanta v. Smith, 228 Ga. App. 864, 868 (493 SE2d 51) (1997), that “words must be given their plain and ordinary meaning,” and that “substantial” and “any” “have different meanings.” See also Hall v. Ault, 240 Ga. 585, 587 (242 SE2d 101) (1978) (Hall, J., dissenting).
Any Evidence and Clearly Erroneous
“In Georgia, it is well-settled that the ‘clearly erroneous’ standard for reviewing findings of fact is equivalent to the highly deferential ‘any evidence’ test.” Reed v. State, 291 Ga. 10, 727 S.E.2d 112 (2012). 445
Inapplicable to competency determinations. In Sims v. State, 279 Ga. 389 (614 SE2d 73) (2005), the Supreme Court considered the standard of review to apply to determinations of a criminal defendant’s competency to stand trial. The Court found “that the ‘any evidence’ standard of review thwarts genuine review of an appeal from a verdict of competency because the presumption of competency would always provide some evidence in support of a finding of competency.” 614 SE2d at 76.“[B]ecause a substantive competency claim requires the defendant to meet the higher standard of proof of incompetency by a preponderance of the evidence, the appropriate standard of appellate review is whether after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, a rational trier of fact could have found that the defendant failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was incompetent to stand trial.” Id. (citation omitted).
Awards of attorney’s fees pursuant to OCGA § 9-15-14(a) are reviewed under the any evidence standard, but are unusual in that the “evidence” being considered involves the law itself. “[W]hether attorney fees are required under OCGA § 9–15–14(a) depends in some cases not so much upon an assessment of what we usually mean when we speak of ‘evidence’—testimony and exhibits and the like—but upon an assessment of the state of the law at the time a party advanced a legal argument that, another party now contends, forms the basis for an award of attorney fees. Such an assessment of the state of the law, we think, itself presents a question of law, and we usually do not defer to trial courts about pure questions of law. This seems to be a case in which an assessment of the state of the law at the time Gibson Construction asserted its claims against GAA Acquisitions is mostly dispositive. So, although we apply the ‘any evidence’ standard of review in this case, to the extent that the ‘evidence’ relevant to the question of attorney fees consists of the state of the law, we make our own assessment of that ‘evidence’….” Gibson Constr. Co. v. GAA Acquisitions I, LLC, 314 Ga. App. 674 (725 SE2d 806) (2012) (citations omitted).