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Can I Appeal My Case?

Can I Appeal My Case?

And How Does the Indiana Court of Appeals Review Cases?

At Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., we consult and represent clients with a wide array of appellate issues, ranging from domestic relations to criminal to civil cases based on theories ranging from contracts to torts. During initial meetings with clients, the discussion quickly turns to what occurred in the trial court that is potentially “wrong” and how to formulate an appeal, if at all, in order to bring those issues to light.

Fortunately, Indiana has one of the most efficient intermediate appellate courts in the country (the Indiana Court of Appeals) and decides most cases when fully briefed in about thirty days. However, a source of dismay is sometimes encountered with what exactly can be appealed. For instance, the best appellate issue cannot be raised if the time has passed (which it typically thirty days from a final order) to perfect the appeal.

Because there are differences between the rights associated with criminal cases (i.e., the loss of freedom) and those civil in nature, a belated appeal may be sometimes allowed in criminal cases, or other relief found in post-conviction rules or ineffective assistance of counsel laws.

In other situations, a legal argument and evidence may not have been made at trial, even though the client has quite a bit of evidence supporting the argument. As a general rule, if the argument was not raised in the trial court record (that is, the trial testimony or exhibits), that argument is considered waived, and cannot be reviewed upon appeal.

So, if an issue is not tried in the lower court, it is not an appealable issue. Appeals are restricted to the record, and new evidence may not be added. Obviously, there are exceptions to many if not most laws, so skilled counsel should be consulted. Moreover, it is only final orders, not a vast array of other orders that may arise in the course of a case, which may be appealed.

If your case is one that is appealable, an important question is to understand how the Court of Appeals reviews the record. The standard of review is not the same in each case. Parties do not get to pick their standard of review, but rather, the standard of review is determined by what issue is being appealed and whether certain requests were timely made in the trial court or are required by other law. The standard of review is strongly linked to the probability of obtaining appellate relief.

For example, in a child support modification determination by a trial court being appealed, the Court of Appeals usually reviews the trial court’s ruling for “abuse of discretion”. The trier of fact in the trial court (judge, magistrate, or commission) determines whether the witnesses is believable by tone, body language, and is in the best position to make a determination. Therefore, if there is evidence to support the judgment of the trial court, it will be affirmed by the Court of Appeals as a general rule.

Under the abuse of discretion standard of review, the Court of Appeals will only overturn the trial court’s decision if they determine that the trier of fact abused his or her discretion in making the determination. An abuse of discretion is one that leaves the Court of Appeals with the firm conviction the trial court made a mistake. This is a very differential standard to trial courts and makes it unlikely to obtain reversal--because the trier of fact was directly presented with all of the evidence in the record and weighed it.

Another standard of review is “de novo”. Under de novo review, the Court of Appeals can reexamine the record to determine the outcome. For example, in domestic law, the parties may enter into settlement agreements, and the same are considered contracts. Determination of a contract is generally a pure question of law.

This means there is no judicial discretion on how to interpret the contract. The Court of Appeals reviews the case and gives no deference to trial courts. However, if there is a factual dispute under the contract, this rule would not apply. De novo review is an easier burden to meet as an appellant.

A third standard of review is the “clearly erroneous” standard. Under this standard of review, there are two steps for the Court of Appeals to determine in passing on the appeal. This standard is engaged by a request made by a party prior to the receipt of evidence for special findings under Trial Rule 52 or if required by a statutory provision or other law.

With this standard of review, the Court of appeals first determines whether the evidence supports the trial court’s factual findings, and then, whether the factual findings support the judgment. Therefore, if the facts of the underlying record (trial testimony and exhibits) do not support the factual findings, including the ultimate finding (the key fact), then the application of it to the law, the second step is also unsupported. This means the decision of the trial court is clearly erroneous. A fact applied to a conclusion of law may be clearly erroneous, even if the record supports the facts in the event the trial court misapplies the law. Misapplications of law, however, are reviewed de novo.

So the question of what can be appealed is complex, as is whether the appeal has a good chance of success, depending upon the standard of review applied by the Court of Appeals. There are many factors to determine what can be appealed and the review under which it will be appealed under and reviewed by the Court of Appeals.

While it is not necessary to understand all the nuances behind these factors, knowing that appeals are constricted to the record, and not every case may be reviewed de novo, but instead are very differential to the fact finder, allows appellants to understand the nature of their appeal and make informed legal choices. If this blog post has helped in that regard, it has met is objective.

Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. practices law throughout the state of Indiana. This blog post was written by Bryan Ciyou, Esq. and Jessica Keyes.

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