Sometimes the decision a judge makes after the trial in a family law matter just has to be appealed. This might be because the judge’s ruling was so devastatingly unfavorable to you that it needs redress. This might also be because even though you were not entirely satisfied with the judge’s ruling, the other side decided to appeal the decision and you must defend the trial outcome. Either way, in order to protect your rights, it is essential that you understand whether an appeal of a family court decision is possible (and advisable), what is involved in the appeal process, and why your choice of attorney matters.
Although most family law matters are settled by agreement of the parties, some go to trial. This generally happens when the parties to a divorce, custody, support, or other family law matter feel so strongly about the need for a particular outcome that they were willing to undergo the expense and effort of litigating it. One could say that this is the reason we have judges.
Judges have extensive knowledge of the law, and try to apply it fairly to the facts in evidence; however, that doesn’t mean that they are infallible. Judges are human too, and sometimes they make mistakes. Fortunately, Maryland makes it possible to appeal a decision in a family law case where serious mistakes exist. The appeal process, however, is extremely formal and technical.
In Maryland, if one party believes the judge made a mistake in the trial decision, that party may request an appeal of the family court decision within thirty days of the entry of the final judgment as a matter of right. This means the party does not need the approval of the appellate court to start the appeal. Such an appeal is started by filing a Notice of Appeal with the Court of Special Appeals. Although the formal request to appeal a case is e-filed, the party filing the appeal (called the “Appellant”) or the party defending the appeal (called the “Appellee”) may also need to provide paper copies of some documents as part of the appellate process.
Appeals follow a formal process governed by written rules and can be quite complex. After the filing of a formal Notice of Appeal, the Appellant must order an entire written transcript of the trial from the Circuit Court where the trial took place. Sometimes the appellate court will order the parties try to mediate the appellate dispute before the process goes any further. If no appellate mediation is ordered, or the mediation process fails, then the appellate argument phase begins. In an appeal, each side first files a written argument (called a “brief”) that contains their view of the facts and the legal arguments in support of their position. The appellant goes first, then the appellee gets a chance to respond, then the appellant gets a last chance to address issues contained within the appellee’s response. Once that is done, the appellate court sets a date for the two sides to present oral arguments to a panel of appeal court judges.
An appeal is not a re-trial of the case. You will not be allowed to call witnesses to testify or present evidence before this panel of judges. Instead, the appellate court will review the entire record of the trial: the transcript of the trial and any exhibits that were entered into evidence during the trial. In short, if something did not come out during the trial, it will not be part of the appeal.
The Court of Special Appeals also will not issue a new decision based on its review of the trial transcript and other evidence. The appellate court’s review of the record is to determine whether the trial court made incorrect findings of fact, committed legal error, either in the trial process or in application of the law, or abused its discretion. In other words, the appellate court is not deciding whether the trial court’s ruling is correct, but rather whether the ruling was reached in a way that was according to the law. In some rare cases, the appellate court will base its decision only on the record and the written briefs without hearing oral argument from the attorneys representing the parties on appeal.
If the appellate court does find that the trial court committed an error, or an abuse of discretion, it will usually remand (send back) the case to the trial court to correct the error. Depending on how serious the error was, the appellate court may order the trial court to modify its original order, reconsider the facts, or take additional evidence.
If you are dissatisfied with the ruling of the Court of Special Appeals, you may be able to appeal your case further to the Maryland Court of Appeals (the highest appellate court in the state). However, the Maryland Court of Appeals can decline to consider a further appeal. If that happens, the decision of the Court of Special Appeals stands.
A successful appeal begins at trial. If the court makes an error during the trial, the trial attorney must be alert and nimble enough to object or otherwise “preserve” the error on the record so that it can be raised at the appellate level. If a court makes even a serious error, and the error is not preserved, it cannot be raised on appeal, no matter how unjust the result would be.
At Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield, we are experienced trial attorneys who plan for trial with tactical precision and assess every action of the trial court through the lens of a potential need for appeal. We litigate to win, and take all necessary measures to protect our clients’ interests and keep their options open.
If you need to file or to defend an appeal of a Maryland family law matter after the trial decision, we can help analyze what arguments are possible (and are worth making). We have the experience and skill needed to prepare effective briefs and to deliver winning oral arguments. We are well-positioned to advance every possible argument in favor of our client’s positions. In the event we are retained to appeal a case tried by another attorney, we meticulously review the record to extract every item that can be used to craft an effective appeal.
If it appears you may need to file or to defend an appeal of your Maryland family court decision, you have only a brief time period 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.