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What standards of review will apply?
You don’t get to retry your case in the Court of Appeal; there are significant limitations on appellate courts’ power to review trial court orders.  These are expressed in standards of review – basically, the rules that govern how the court evaluates a particular issue.  Understanding what standards of review apply to the issues you want to raise will help guide you to an intelligent selection and presentation of the issues.

De novo:  The court reviews the question anew, with no deference to the trial court’s determination.  This standard typically applies to the resolution of questions of law, summary judgments, demurrers, etc.  It also applies to certain constitutional issues.  (See 9 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (4th ed. 1997) Appeal, § 318.)

Abuse of discretion:  “In many situations throughout the entire field of procedural and substantive law, the trial judge has, either by express statute or by rule of policy, a discretionary power to decide the issue.  In those situations the exercise of discretion will not be disturbed unless it is abused, i.e., the appellate court will not substitute its own view as to the proper decision.”  (9 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (4th ed. 1997) Appeal, § 356, emphasis omitted.)  This standard typically applies to evidentiary and procedural rulings during trial, as well as to pre-trial discovery rulings.

Substantial evidence:  If there are factual disputes, the reviewing court will defer to the trial court’s resolution of those disputes as long as there is “substantial evidence” to support the result.  This is true even where the matter is decided entirely on papers with no live testimony.  (Chronometrics, Inc. v. Sysgen, Inc. (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 597, 603, 168 Cal.Rptr. 196.)
 Mixed standard:  In some situations the court may apply multiple standards.  For instance, the grant or denial of an injunction is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard, but the substantial evidence standard applies to the underlying factual determinations.  Thus, the reviewing court undertakes a two-step process:  It “first determine[s] whether substantial evidence supports the factual basis on which the trial court acted, and then determine[s] whether the orders made by the trial court were an abuse of discretion in light of those facts.”  (Obregon v. Superior Court (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 424, 430, 79 Cal.Rptr.2d 62.)

Selected issues subject to de novo review: 
  • Order on demurrer (Financial Corp. of America v. Willburn (1987) 189 Cal.App.3d 764, 234 Cal.Rptr. 653) 
  • Order on summary judgment/adjudication motion (Soules v. Cadam, Inc. (1991) 2 Cal.App.4th 390, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 6, disapproved on another ground in Turner v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc. (1994) 7 Cal. 4th 1238, 1251, 32 Cal.Rptr.2d 223) 
  • Order on JNOV motion (Mann v. Columbia Pictures, Inc. (1982) 128 Cal.App.3d 628, 180 Cal.Rptr. 522) 
  • Interpretation of a statute (California Teachers Assn. v. San Diego Community College Dist. (1981) 28 Cal.3d 692, 170 Cal.Rptr. 817) 
  • Constitutional questions (In re Marriage of Buol (1985) 39 Cal.3d 751, 218 Cal.Rptr. 31) 
  • Granting of a directed verdict (Hilliard v. A. H. Robins Co. (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d 374, 196 Cal.Rptr. 117) 
  • Interpretation of a fully-integrated writing (Aviointeriors Spa v. World Airways, Inc. (1986) 181 Cal.App.3d 908, 226 Cal.Rptr. 527)

Selected issues subject to review for abuse of discretion:
  • Order granting or denying a new trial (Sandco American, Inc. v. Notrica (1990) 216 Cal.App.3d 1495, 265 Cal.Rptr. 587; City of Poway v. City of San Diego (1991) 229 Cal.App.3d 847, 280 Cal.Rptr. 368) 
  • Order on motion to continue (Cade v. Mid-City Hosp. Corp. (1975) 45 Cal.App.3d 589, 119 Cal.Rptr. 571) 
  • Award of attorney’s fees and costs (In re Marriage of Gonzalez (1976) 57 Cal.App.3d 736, 129 Cal.Rptr. 566) 
  • Ruling on admission or exclusion of evidence (Aguayo v. Crompton & Knowles Corp. (1986) 183 Cal.App.3d 1032, 228 Cal.Rptr. 768; Solis v. Southern Cal. Rapid Transit Dist. (1980) 105 Cal.App.3d 382, 164 Cal.Rptr. 343) 
  • Order on motion for relief from default (Kendall v. Barker (1988) 197 Cal.App.3d 619, 243 Cal.Rptr. 42) 
  •  Discovery ruling (Perkins v. Superior Court (1981) 118 Cal.App.3d 761, 173 Cal.Rptr. 596)

Selected issues subject to substantial evidence review:
  • Review of factual determinations made by jury (Pool v. City of Oakland (1986) 42 Cal.3d 1051, 232 Cal.Rptr. 528) or a judge (Shamblin v. Brattain (1988) 44 Cal.3d 474, 243 Cal.Rptr. 902) 
  • Interpretation of a writing where the meaning turns on conflicting extrinsic evidence (In re Marriage of Fonstein (1976) 17 Cal.3d 738, 131 Cal.Rptr. 738.  
  • Amount of damages (Eggink v. Robertson (1961) 191 Cal.App.2d 496, 13 Cal.Rptr. 76)