Once a lawsuit has reached the point where an appeal is being considered, litigants have undoubtedly made a considerable investment of time and money. If the case involves a personal matter, like a will and estate dispute, a criminal conviction or a divorce, a considerable emotional effort has surely been made as well. While the outlook on appeal always depends on the unique factual and legal merits of each case, the applicable standard or standards of review loom large when it comes to analyzing the possibility of winning on appeal. This post will look at a useful example of this: a civil matter that has been decided by the entry of an order granting summary judgment.
By way of example, consider a civil matter in Superior Court in New Jersey that has been resolved through the granting of a summary judgment motion. Assuming the amount at issue is large enough to justify the cost of the appeal, and there are legitimate arguments to make on appeal, the relevant standard of review weighs in favor of pursuing the appeal.
Specifically, the Appellate Division judges will review the summary judgment motion on its merits without deference to the decision of the trial court. In other words, the judges on the appeals panel considering the appeal will not assume that the trial court made the right decision. Instead, the appeals panel will apply the same standard as the trial court. The evidence submitted in connection with the motion will be viewed in the light most favorable to the “non-moving” party. The appeals court will then decide whether any genuine issues of material fact exist. Since the party that lost the summary judgment motion is most likely the one filing the appeal, this means that the evidence will be viewed in the light most favorable to the party filing the appeal. Compared to most other standards of review on appeal in New Jersey, this is a relatively favorable standard.
Even if the appeals panel agrees with the trial court that no questions of fact exist, the appeals panel will review the correctness of the trial court’s rulings on the law if the appealing party challenges them. In looking at these legal rulings, the appeals panel will again not assume the trial court made the right decision. Once again, for the party pursuing the appeal, this is a good thing.
The appeal of a summary judgment motion is one of the few circumstances in which a New Jersey appeals court will examine the facts of a case through its own fresh eyes, as opposed to the eyes of the trial level judge or jury. By contrast, the appeals court is, in most other situations, required to assume the findings of the trial level judge or jury are correct, and needs a very compelling reason to disagree with those findings. This is why, relatively speaking, the appeal of a summary judgment motion involves a favorable standard of review.
The value of what is at stake in a lawsuit necessarily factors heavily into the decision to appeal. A monetary value cannot be placed upon the liberty interests of an individual. If you or a loved one has been convicted of a crime, there is obvious reason to consider an appeal from the conviction. In a civil, commercial or estate dispute, if the money or damages at issue are of a substantial value, the expense of an appeal may also be justifiable. Nonetheless, it makes little sense to proceed blindly with an appeal based solely upon the value of a case and without any consideration of the prospects for success. To be sure, there is no reliable way to predict the outcome of an appeal. However, an appeals attorney will assess the viability of an appeal by analyzing the record at the trial level, identifying errors within that record and considering the standards of review that relate to those issues.
In a subsequent post, we will take a look at ways to approach an appeal in the appeals courts of New Jersey when the standard of review applicable to fact findings is not so favorable.
If you are considering pursuing an appeal from a ruling in a civil, criminal, administrative or other proceeding in New Jersey state or federal court, the New Jersey appeals attorneys at the Law Office of Bart J. Klein can help you determine whether it is advisable to proceed, and if so, the best approach to take. We welcome you to contact us at (973) 763-6060, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by completing our online contact form.
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