April 26th, 2021
What is an Appeal in a Civil Lawsuit?
An appeal is a request to a higher-level court to evaluate a decision reached by a lower court to determine whether an error of law occurred at the lower court level, including during trial. There are specific circumstances when a party to a civil lawsuit can appeal issues in their case. Parties may not file an appeal simply because they were dissatisfied with a lower court’s ruling or the outcome at trial. The appealing party is usually referred to as the “Appellant” or the “Petitioner.” The non-appealing party is called the “Appellee” or the “Respondent.”
Different jurisdictions have different procedural rules for filing appeals, and the process is different in federal court than in state courts. In many jurisdictions, when a lower court’s decision meets the grounds for an appeal, the first step will be for the losing party to file a notice of appeal. This generally must be done in a certain number of days after the decision being appealed is issued. The party seeking the appeal, the Appellant/Petitioner, will then file their appellate brief, which will set forth the legal standards that allow for the appeal to be sought, a recitation of the facts and procedural history of the case at the lower court level, the issues that the higher court is being asked to analyze and the reasons the appealing party believes the lower court made a legal error. Sometimes an appeal may involve an issue of law that has never before been addressed by that jurisdiction or because there is a lack of clarity on how a lower court should interpret or apply a statute. The other party to the litigation, the Appellee/Respondent, will then file a response brief, explaining why the lower court’s decision was correct and should be upheld. The Appellant/Petitioner will file a reply brief, which gives them the opportunity to respond to those arguments.
Occasionally, the court of appeals will make a ruling based on the briefs alone, but many appeals also involve a timed oral argument, where each party has the opportunity to further explain their arguments and the court can ask questions of the attorneys to gain additional information that can help them reach a ruling. The appeals court rarely permits any new evidence to be addressed as part of the appeal and, instead, the appeal is based solely upon the existing record from the lower court and the legal arguments of the parties.
Appeals that occur on specific issues while the rest of the civil case is still pending are called “interlocutory appeals.” These types of appeals can often cause the underlying litigation to essentially be put on “pause,” which is referred to as a “stay,” while the appeal is litigated and resolved. This is because the ruling on appeal could significantly impact the underlying litigation and both the lower court and the litigating parties will take direction from the appeals’ court ruling. Many jurisdictions have an additional level of appeal, generally in the form of a Supreme Court. Again, not all appeals can be appealed further to the highest court, but it is possible for the appeal to continue to that final level. That level of appeal is significant because the rulings become the highest authority of case law in the jurisdiction and have an impact on other cases which involve the same issues.