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Civil Appeals – What, Why, and How?

Updated: Feb 25

What is an appeal?

An "appeal" is the review of a case by a higher court. A typical appeal is, after a party loses at trial, they request the next highest court overturn some decision of the trial court. There are situations in which a party can request an "interlocutory appeal," which is an appeal of a decision prior to entry of judgment. However, they have their own particularities, so this post will focus on appeals of final judgments.

Why do parties appeal?

If you lose at trial, and you believe that loss is the result of an erroneous decision by the jury or trial judge, you might have grounds for appeal. If you have strong legal grounds for the appeal, it might be worth the risk and the headache of continuing the litigation.

For example, Peter sues David for breach of contract. At trial, the judge excludes evidence that David has done this to 1,000 other plaintiffs in exactly the same way. Peter believes that if that evidence were admitted, that Peter would have won. So Peter appeals the refusal to admit that evidence.

Then why wouldn't a party appeal if they lose?

Sometimes the law just isn't on your side, and there is no good reason to appeal. Sometimes the facts just aren't on your side, and there is no good reason to appeal a decision. Perhaps the judge did make a mistake that would provide grounds for appeal, but that mistake wasn't the reason you lost.

Also, appeals can be expensive, so it might not make financial sense. If you have no grounds for attorney fees, then it might be time to cut your losses. If there are grounds for attorney fees, and you lose again on appeal, you might have to pay the other side's attorney fees for the appeal.

How do you appeal?

In California, Texas, and the federal courts, you file a Notice of Appeal at the trial court level. This document lets the trial court and the other parties know that you intend to pursue an appeal. The Notice of Appeal is then sent to the appellate court, which contacts the parties with next steps.

What are the typical steps of an appeal?

The appellate court contacts the parties with a general schedule. The appealing party ("appellant" or "petitioner") will submit a brief outlining what decisions were erroneous, the grounds for claiming that they were erroneous, and a request for relief. The non-appealing party ("appellee" or "respondent") then files a brief responding to the appellant's brief. The appellant then files a response, and later, the appellee may (but usually does not) files a final response brief.

After briefs have been submitted, the court will hear oral arguments. This is where the court hears each side's arguments, but also has an opportunity to ask each side about various facts and applicable case law. I will always recommend that you hire an attorney to handle your appeal. If no other reason convinces you to do so, hopefully the prospect of oral arguments does.

At some point after oral arguments, the court will issue an opinion. It might affirm the lower court's decision, reverse the lower court's decision, remand (meaning send the case back to the lower court), or some combination (if there are multiple issues being decided).

Is it the same at the Supreme Court?

It is largely the same for the Supreme Courts of California, Texas, and the United States. The difference is that the Supreme Courts do not have to hear every case that is appealed to them, while intermediate appellate courts do (note: this is just for civil decisions; I do not practice criminal law, so I'm not speaking about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals).

What is my appellate court?

For federal courts, if you're in California, it's the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. For Texas, it's the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Appeals from both may be heard by the United States Supreme Court.

Each state has its own division of appellate districts, usually grouping counties together.

My California practice is mostly in the Coachella Valley in Riverside County. Appeals of the Riverside Superior Court are heard by California's 4th District Court of Appeal. In turn, appeals of that court are heard by the Supreme Court of California.

My Texas practice represents clients mostly in the DFW Metroplex, and specifically Dallas and Collin Counties. Dallas and Collin County are served by the 5th Court of Appeals. Appeals from that court are heard by the Supreme Court of Texas.

You can easily find maps with this information online.

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