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Understanding Standards of Review in Civil Appeals

Most people have seen a civil trial, either in person or as depicted in a movie or TV program. Few people are familiar with what happens after a trial when one side is dissatisfied with the outcome. If you want to challenge a California trial decision, you must understand the California appellate process and the correct standard of review.

What is a Standard of Review?

In civil appeals, the appellate court must follow specific procedural rules. To start, the court determines which guidelines it must follow to analyze whether the trial court made an error. These guidelines are known as the standard of review and different cases require different standards of review.

An appellant must understand which standard of review applies to his or her case to make the strongest winning arguments at the appellate level. In this article, we will discuss the three most common standards of review employed by the California appellate court.

Top 3 Appellate Court Standards of Review

Depending on the evidence presented at trial, the law which was applied by the trier of fact, and the final decision rendered by the judge or jury, the appellate court must decide which standard of review applies to an appeal. Here are three standards of review and possible examples of when they are used.

1) Abuse of Discretion – If the trial judge had the opportunity to use his or her personal discretion during the trial to rule on a legal issue that affected the outcome of the trial, this will be the appropriate review standard upon appeal. For example, if one of the attorneys offered a piece of evidence and the other side objected to its admission, the judge’s ruling on the objection could be reviewed under this standard.

Using this standard, the appellate court cannot overturn the judge’s ruling unless the ruling is determined to be “arbitrary” or “absurd.” Proving that a judge acted in an arbitrary or absurd way is very difficult and doesn’t happen often.

2) Substantial Evidence – This standard of review requires a finding that the trial court’s decision is not supported by sufficient evidence. The appellate court considers whether there was any evidence in the trial record to support the trial court’s finding. This is a very difficult standard for appellants to meet because the appellate court will hold that nearly any evidence in the record is sufficient to support the trial court’s decision. As a practical matter, an appellate will need to show that there was no evidence to support the trial court’s decision or that the decision was contrary to the evidence.

The appellate court will not change the trial outcome solely based on the credibility of the witnesses, because the trier of fact (the judge or jury) personally observed the witnesses as they testified and received the evidence at the time of the trial. The appellate court will presume the trier of fact was in the best position to determine credibility and decide what actually happened.

3) De Novo – This Latin phrase means “from the beginning.” This standard of review limits the appellate court’s analysis to questions of law, not facts. For example, if the court based its final decision on the legal interpretation of a California statute or a business contract, the appellant can argue the court’s interpretation of the law or the contract was incorrect and that it adversely affected the trial outcome.

This review is also limited to the trial court record and no new evidence is allowed. However, under a de novo review, the appellate court is not required to defer to the trial court’s decisions and can instead consider the legal issues from the start, as if the trial judge never ruled on them, using its independent judgment.

Appeals are Not For the Inexperienced

If you are considering an appeal, you must understand the various standards of review which may apply to your case. Making an appellate argument based upon the wrong standard of review is a fatal mistake.

At Evans Kingsbury, LLP we bring decades of successful appellate process experience to our clients’ appeals. Call us today at (707) 596-6090 or fill out our easy contact form to discuss your appeal.

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