While most divorces and family law cases end in a settlement negotiated by the parties, some can be resolved only by trial. Often these cases involve complex issues and parties with diametrically opposed positions. These cases are heard by a judge, whose decision may be unsatisfactory to one or both parties.
You may consider an appeal if the judge’s decision is not only unfavorable to you, but unfair. Even if you are willing to live with the outcome of the case, you may find yourself having to defend an appeal if the other side challenges the ruling.
The appeals process in the District of Columbia is designed to protect litigants from the effects of legal errors made in their cases. But in order to protect your rights, you need to understand when it is possible to appeal a case, when it is advisable to do so, the steps in the process, and how your choice of attorney affects the likelihood that you will prevail on appeal.
Trial court judges know the law and do their best to apply it fairly in the cases before them. However, even the wisest judge is still human—and humans make mistakes. Part of an attorney’s work is to identify those errors that could negatively impact their client, and to ensure that those errors are addressed, both in a trial and, if necessary, on appeal. The appellate process in the District of Columbia is highly technical, and success requires strict adherence to a specialized set of rules.
If it appears that a judge’s decision in a family law matter is unsupported by the facts and the applicable law, you may seek redress by filing an appeal. The first step in this process is to file a Notice of Appeal with the Clerk of the Superior Court; this must generally be done within 30 days following the entry of the final order or judgment being appealed.
Appeals are heard by the D.C. Court of Appeals, but if the order from which the appeal is taken was originally heard by a Magistrate Judge, rather than an Associate Judge, it must be reviewed first by an Associate Judge as a Rule D Motion. If that review still yields an unfair result, the review may then be appealed to the Court of Appeals. In some cases, the time in which to file a Notice of Appeal may be as little as ten days after a decision by a Magistrate Judge.
An appeal is not a chance to re-try your case. The D.C. Court of Appeals will not hear witness testimony or entertain new evidence. Instead, the appellate court will review the entire record of the trial. The record includes the transcript of the entire trial as well as any exhibits that were entered into evidence during the trial. Evidence that was not part of the trial record cannot be considered on appeal. The party filing the appeal (the “appellant”) must order a copy of the transcript of the trial within ten days of filing the Notice of Appeal (or file a certificate in the Court of Appeals stating that no transcript will be ordered). If the appellant intends to argue that findings in the trial court were unsupported by the evidence, he or she will need to include in the record a transcript of all evidence relevant to support that conclusion.
The next phase is called argument. During the argument phase, both the appellant and the opposing party (the “appellee”) file briefs with the court. Briefs are written documents containing each party’s view of the facts and the legal arguments that support their positions. Very strict rules govern the form, style, and content of appellate briefs. The appellant files first, and the appellee responds to each of the appellant’s arguments. The appellant then has the opportunity to address any issues raised by the appellee in their brief. After briefs have been filed, the court sets a date for both the appellant and appellee to appear for oral arguments before the court.
The purpose of this detailed process is not to come up with a new decision in the case, but rather to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion or made incorrect factual findings or legal errors that caused an unfair outcome for one party. The issue on appeal is not whether the trial court reached the right decision, but whether it was reached in a fair manner according to the law.
After the Court of Appeals has reviewed the record and briefs and considered the oral arguments, it will issue a decision. If the Court of Appeals finds an error, or abuse of discretion by the lower court, it will usually remand (send back) the case to the lower court so that the trial court can take action to correct the error. If the Court of Appeals finds no error, it will affirm the decision of the trial court.
The foundation for a successful appeal is laid in the trial court. Trial attorneys must recognize when the court makes an error and “preserve” the error on the record so that it can be raised on appeal. No matter how serious a judge’s error, or how unfair the result, if the attorney fails to preserve the error, it cannot be appealed.
At Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield, we are experienced attorneys who plan for trial with tactical precision. Even as we work toward a just result at trial, we evaluate every action of the trial court with an eye toward a potential need for appeal. From the outset, we take all necessary measures to protect our clients’ interests and keep their options open.
Whether you need to file an appeal in the District of Columbia, or must defend against one, we have the experience to identify which arguments are possible (and which are worth making). We have a documented track record of preparing persuasive briefs and delivering effective oral arguments on appeal. Whether working on the appeal of a case we have tried, or one tried by another attorney, we review the record in precise detail to extract every item that can be used in support of our client’s position on appeal.
If you need to file or to defend an appeal of your divorce or other family law matter, you have only a limited window of time in which to act. We invite you to contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield and schedule a consultation to discuss your individual situation and learn how we can help you.