Appeals Process

The side that files the appeal is called the "appellant." The other side is called the "respondent."

If you appeal, the appellate court will review the trial court record to decide if a legal mistake was made in the trial court that changed the outcome of the case.

The side that appeals (the appellant) can ask the appellate court to decide if certain kinds of legal errors (mistakes) were made:

  • Prejudicial error: This kind of error is a mistake about the law or court procedures that causes substantial harm to the appellant. Prejudicial error can include things like mistakes made by the judge about the law, incorrect instructions given to the jury, and errors or misconduct by the lawyers or by the jury. The mistakes must have harmed the appellant.
  • No substantial evidence: The appellant can ask the appellate court to determine if there was no substantial evidence that reasonably supported the trial court's decision.

Remember, the appellate court will not consider new evidence. An appeal is not a new trial.

You cannot appeal a court's decision just because you do not like it. There must be a valid reason for you to appeal. Some people want to file an appeal just because they are mad at the judge or at the other side. But appeals and lawsuits are very serious, and the court can punish people who file "frivolous" lawsuits (lawsuits that are not based on a valid reason).

Winning an appeal is very hard. You must prove that the trial court made a legal mistake that caused you harm. The trial court does not have to prove it was right, but you have to prove there was a mistake. So it is very hard to win an appeal.

How the appellate court reviews the trial court’s decision — Standards of review

When the appellate court reviews a case, it needs some rules or guidelines to determine whether a mistake was made in the trial court. There are different kinds of review guidelines for different kinds of trial court decisions. These guidelines are called "standards of review"

When you (the appellant) argue that the trial court made a legal error, the appellate court looks first at what the standard of review is for the particular kind of decision made in your trial court case.

The 3 most common standards of review are:

If you are appealing a decision that involved the trial court's use of discretion, the abuse of discretion standard is used by the appellate court in its review. Any decision that involves the judge using his or her discretion (such as whether to admit certain evidence in the trial) comes under this standard. Abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court judge makes a ruling that is arbitrary or absurd. This does not happen very often.

If you are appealing because you think that the decision of the trial court is not supported by substantial evidence, the appellate court uses the substantial evidence standard. The appellate court reviews the record to make sure there is substantial evidence that reasonably supports the trial court’s decision. The appellate court's function is not to decide whether it would have reached the same factual conclusions as the judge or jury. The appellate court just decides whether a reasonable fact-finder could have come to the same conclusion based on the facts in the record. If there is a conflict in the evidence and a reasonable fact-finder could have resolved the conflict either way, the appellate court will not overturn the trial court's decision. Because the judge or jury at the trial saw the witnesses and heard what the witnesses said, they were in a better position to decide what actually happened and who was telling the truth.

De novo is a Latin phrase meaning "from the beginning." In de novo review, the appellate court does not defer to the decisions made in the trial court and looks at the issue as if the trial court had never ruled on it. This type of review is generally limited to issues involving questions of law. If the issues involve questions of law — like the interpretation of a contract or a statute — the appellate court does not assume the trial court's ruling is correct but looks at the issue from the beginning (de novo), exercising its independent judgment. But this kind of review is still not a new trial because the appellate court does not look at new evidence and bases its review on the evidence in the record from the trial court.