Timely resort by an unsuccessful party in a lawsuit or administrative proceeding to an appropriate superior court empowered to review a final decision on the ground that it was based upon an erroneous application of law.
A person who initiates an appeal—the appellant, sometimes called the plaintiff in error, must file a notice of appeal, along with the necessary documents, to commence appellate review. The person against whom the appeal is brought, the appellee, then files a brief in response to the appellant’s allegations.
There are usually two stages of review in the federal court and in many state court systems: an appeal from a trial court to an intermediate appellate court and thereafter to the highest appellate court in the jurisdiction. Within the appellate rules of administrative procedure, there might be several levels of appeals from a determination made by an Administrative Agency. For example, an appeal of the decision of an administrative law judge may be heard by a reviewing body within the agency, and from that body, the appeal may go to a trial court, such as a federal district court. Thereafter, the appeal might travel the same route as an appeal taken from a judicial decision, going from an intermediate to a superior appellate court, or it might go directly to a superior appellate court for review, bypassing the intermediate stage. The rules of appellate procedure applicable to a particular court govern its review of cases.
Right to Appeal
There is no absolute right of appeal for all decisions rendered by a lower court or administrative agency. Federal and state constitutions and statutory provisions create appellate courts and prescribe the types of cases that are within their jurisdiction. An appeal may be granted as a matter of right, such as from a trial court to an intermediate appellate court or only at the discretion of a superior appellate court, for example, by a grant of certiorari by the Supreme Court. If the decision presented does not meet the statutory requirements for review, the appellate court is powerless to hear the appeal and review is denied.
The right to appeal a decision is limited to those parties to the proceeding who are aggrieved by the decision because it has a direct and adverse effect upon their persons or property. In addition, an actual case or controversy must exist at the time of review. Issues that have become moot while the appeal is pending and cases that have been settled during that time are not reviewable.
A final judgment or order must have been reached by the trial court in order for a case to be appeal-able. A judgment is considered final for purposes of appeal when it ends the action in the court in which it was brought and nothing more is to be decided. This rule is intended to prevent the piecemeal litigation of a lawsuit, to avoid delay resulting from Interlocutory appeals, and to give the trial court the opportunity to render a decision in the case to the satisfaction of both parties, thereby obviating the need for appeal. The consideration of incidental matters, such as the computation of interest, attorneys’ fees, or court costs, does not prevent a judgment or order from being appealed.
Error is the basis for review of a final decision rendered by a court or administrative agency. Error is called to the attention of a court through the use of objections, protests made during the course of a proceeding that an action taken by the opposing side in a controversy is unfair or illegal. Decisions rendered in favor of one party at trial level are presumed by an appellate court to be correct unless objections have been made to the issues in question during the trial. Failure to do so will preclude their review on appeal. An objection must be made as promptly and specifically as possible for each act to which it is directed so that the court may make an intelligent decision regarding its merits. The trial judge rules on the objection, and the decision is included in the trial record. If the attorney for either party disagrees with the ruling, he or she may take an exception, an objection taken to a decision of a court on a Matter of Law, which is noted in the trial record to be preserved for purposes of appeal. Appellate jurisdiction is limited only to a review of actions taken by an inferior court. No new objections can be raised before an appellate court for its consideration unless exceptional circumstances exist to justify the appellate court raising the issues sua sponte, on its own motion. Exceptional circumstances mean the presence at trial of plain error, a mistake in the proceedings that substantially affects the rights of the party against whom the decision has been made and undermines the fairness and integrity of the judicial system, causing a miscarriage of justice.
Time of Appeal
Appeals must be made within the time prescribed by statute or by the governing rules of the appellate court. Such statutes begin to run only after a final decision has been made. The timely filing of the notice of appeal with the clerk of the appellate court and the appellee completes, or perfects, the procedure. If the appeal is not taken and perfected within the time set by statute, the right to appeal is foreclosed. Extensions of time for the filing of an appeal may be granted, however, if extenuating circumstances exist, such as if either party is adjudicated incompetent or dies.
Notice of Appeal
A notice of appeal—a written document filed by the appellant with the court and a copy of which is sent to the appellee—is the initial step in the appeals process. It informs the court and the party in whose favor a judgment or order has been made that the unsuccessful party seeks a review of the case. Failure to file a notice of appeal according to the statutory requirements will preclude appeal.
An appeal bond, a promise to pay a sum of money, must often be posted by an appellant to secure the appellee against the costs of the appeal, if the appellee is successful and the appellant fails to pay. Its amount is determined by the court itself or by statute. The imposition of such a bond discourages frivolous appeals. If successive appeals are taken from an intermediate appellate court to a superior one, a new bond is usually required.
Record on Appeal
The function of the appellate court is limited to a review of the trial record sent up from the lower court and the briefs filed by the appellant and appellee. Amicus Curiae briefs, if permitted by the appellate court, also become part of the record on appeal. The trial record, sometimes called the record proper, must show the pleadings that initiated the case, the complete transcript (in cases of jury trial) of lower court proceedings, the verdict, and the entry of the final judgment or order. The appellant must clearly demonstrate that the grounds for review had been raised and unsuccessfully decided upon at the trial level and, therefore, prejudicial error exists to warrant the reversal of the decision of the lower court.
In some jurisdictions, a bill of exceptions—a written statement of the objections made by a party to the ruling, decision, charge, or opinion of the trial judge—must be submitted to the appellate court to provide a history of the trial proceedings. It should not include matters that belong in the record proper but, instead, should state those points concerning questions of law raised by the exceptions taken during the trial. The appellant’s attorney prepares the bill and presents it to the trial judge for settlement, an agreement between the trial judge and the appellant that the bill contains a truthful account of the events of the trial. If there is disagreement, the judge returns the bill to the appellant with an explanation. The appellee must be given notice of the time and place of the settlement of the bill of exceptions in order to object to or approve its contents. The settled bill of exceptions becomes part of the trial transcript, which is part of the record on appeal. The appellant must submit a complete unabridged transcript of the trial that is prepared by the clerk of the trial court.
The entire trial record is printed and filed with the appellate court, and a copy is also sent to the appellee.
Assignment of Errors
A statement by the appellant of the errors alleged to have been committed in the lower court is an assignment of errors, a type of appellate Pleading used to point out to the appellate court the grounds for review. It controls the scope of an appeal because if a ground for review is not contained in it, it will not ordinarily be considered by the court. The assignment of errors is usually part of the notice of appeal, the bill of exceptions, the transcript of the record, or the brief, although in some jurisdictions, it is a separate document.
The appellant and appellee must file individual briefs to aid the appellate court in its consideration of the issues presented. Failure to do so results in a dismissal of the appeal. The facts of the case, the grounds for review, and the arguments relating to those questions must be concisely stated. Any statements referring to the trial record must be supported by an appropriate reference to it.
The appellant’s brief must specifically discuss the alleged errors that entitle the appellant to a reversal and discuss why each ruling of the lower court was wrong, citing authority, such as a case in which a similar point of law has been decided or a statute that applies to the particular point in issue. Disrespectful or abusive language directed against the lower court, the appellate court, the parties, witnesses, or opposing counsel cannot be used. If it is, it will be stricken from the brief, and the costs of the brief that might have been awarded are disallowed.
Appellate courts have jurisdiction to decide only issues actually before them on appeal and nothing else. They cannot render opinions on controversies or declare principles of law that have no practical effect in settling the rights of the litigants.
Only conclusions of law, not findings of fact made by a lower court, are reviewable.
Harmless Error The appellate court must decide whether the errors alleged to have been made by the trial court are harmless or prejudicial. An error that substantially injures the rights of one party is called a prejudicial or reversible error and warrants the reversal of the final judgment or order. However, an error that is technical or minimally affects the rights of the parties or the outcome of the lawsuit is considered a Harmless Error, insufficient to require a reversal or modification of the decision of the lower court.
The clerk of the appellate court schedules on the court calendar the date of the hearing on which each side may present an oral argument. Oral arguments, usually ten to fifteen minutes for each side, help the court understand the issues argued in the brief and persuade the court to rule in favor of the arguing party. During the arguments of appellant and appellee, it is not unusual for the appellate judge to interrupt with questions on particular issues or points of law.
The appellant’s argument briefly discusses the facts on which the Cause of Action is based and traces the history of the case through the lower courts. It includes the legal issues raised by the exceptions taken to the allegedly erroneous rulings of the trial judge. Thereafter, the appellee’s counsel presents arguments in favor of affirming the original decision.
An appellate court has broad powers over the scope of its decision and the relief to be granted. After reviewing the controlling issues in an action, it may affirm the decision of the inferior tribunal, modify it, reverse it, or remand the case for a new trial in the lower court pursuant to its order.When a decision is affirmed, the appellate court accepts the decision of the lower court and rejects the appellant’s contention that it was erroneously made. The modification of a decision by an appellate court means that, while it accepts part of the trial court’s decision, the appellant was correct that the decision was partly erroneous. The trial court’s decision is then modified accordingly.
A reversal of a decision means that the appellate court agrees with the appellant that the decision was erroneously made. The party who lost the case at the trial level becomes the winning party in appellate court.
In some cases, a decision might be reversed but the lawsuit is still unresolved. The appellate court then orders the reversal with the direction that the case be remanded to a lower court for the determination of the issues that remain unsettled.
If a judgment or order is reversed in an intermediate appellate court, the losing party may file an appeal with a superior appellate court for relief, and the appellate process begins again. The decision rendered by a superior appellate court cannot ordinarily be reviewed. In state cases involving issues based on federal statutes or the Constitution, however, an appeal may be brought in the federal court system on those questions that are within its jurisdiction.
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