Understanding California Appellate Courts’ Standards Of Review

Litigants sometimes make the mistake of viewing civil appeals as simply another bite at the apple: a new trial. But appeals are not opportunities to relitigate cases simply because the outcome was unfavorable. In fact, California appellate courts will only hear appeals in certain limited circumstances. Here we consider the three most common bases for appealing a civil case in California.

Appellate courts do not accept every case that is appealed. They have guidelines for deciding whether to accept appeals and how to decide them. There are different guidelines, or standards of review, for different kinds of trial court decisions.

Abuse of Discretion

One potential way to have an appeal heard is to argue that the trial court abused its discretion. This standard is known as abuse of discretion. Judges are not simply automatons who mete out decisions according to strict legal rules. They are granted broad discretion to decide numerous points throughout the trial. In so doing, however, they could abuse that power.

As an example, a judge may decide to admit (or exclude) certain evidence. Abuse of discretion could be argued if the judge’s decision was arbitrary or absurd. Put another way, there must be some basis to explain what the court did in making a decision. This is a difficult standard to meet. Provided the judge acted within the “bounds of reason,” as one decision phrased it, the appellate court won’t disturb it.

Substantial Evidence

The next standard that may apply is called substantial evidence. This essentially means the trial court’s decision was not supported by the evidence presented. Remember, the appellate court is not the proper forum for introducing new evidence. But an appellant could argue that the evidence at trial was simply not sufficient.

In using this standard, the appellate court is not trying to determine whether it would have reached the same decision. Its job is not to second-guess the decision reached by the judge or jury. Rather, the court wants to know whether a reasonable fact-finder could have arrived at that decision. For example, there may have been contradictory evidence put forth at trial by the plaintiff and defendant. If a reasonable juror could have resolved that contradiction either way, the trial decision stands.

De Novo Standard

Finally, the court may decide an appeal under the de novo standard. De novo is Latin for “from the new” or “from the beginning.” The appellate court will examine an issue as if the trial court never did. Importantly, this is a limited standard that usually applies only to questions of law. A question of law is distinct from a question of fact. The question of how a statute should be interpreted or applied is an example of a question of law.

A de novo review should not be confused with a new trial, though the phrasing may suggest this. The appellate court does not look at new evidence. De novo simply means the court will review the trial court’s decision without deference to what the judge decided. Appellate judges will exercise independent judgment, but based on the evidence in the trial record.

Contact Gusdorff Law for Help With Appellate Litigation Matters

Meeting these standards is no easy task, but is absolutely essential to a successful appeal. If you believe the trial judge in your civil case made a mistake, you may have grounds for an appeal. Reach out to Gusdorff Law to schedule your consultation today.


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