Appeals courts are unique in two major respects: evidentiary requirements and standards of review. When cases are appealed, the evidentiary requirements are different at the appeals level than they were at the trial court level. For example, often the appeals court’s factual inquiry is limited to “the record,” or the facts as explained by the trial court. The appeals court cannot look beyond what is in the record or what is argued in front of them, even if they would like additional facts. Occasionally, the appeals court can look to evidence that is introduced by the parties, but many times the standard of review requires that the appeals court cannot look at evidence at all.
In addition, the standard of review depends on the type of legal question presented. The two major standards of review in Louisiana are manifest error and de novo review. In manifest error review, the appeals court simply determines whether the lower court’s outcome is probable, or lacks manifest error. They consider the facts in the record and determine if the outcome was probable given the facts. The trial court has a great deal of deference because they access the credibility of the witnesses and deal with complex evidentiary rules. The second type of review, de novo review, does not rely on the lower court. Instead, the appeals court can consider the evidence in the record as if it were a new trial. There is no need to consider what the lower court did with the information because the appeals court makes its own independent decisions. Often, however, the appeals court is still limited to the evidence in their record.
A recent case arising from the First City Court of New Orleans to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit for the State of Louisiana outlines these concepts. In that case, an individual contracted with a building contractor to make improvements on his house. The individual argued that the contractor performed poorly, and therefore did not fulfill his half of the contract, even though the contractor had already been paid. The lower court granted an exception of prematurity, which, in this case, meant that the party brought the case too early because there was a stipulation in the contract that required mediation before the parties could bring the case to court. Under the exception of prematurity, the appeals court reviews the lower court under manifest error. However, when the parties argued their case at the court of appeals, neither party put the actual contract into evidence at the appeals hearing. Since appeals courts have strict evidentiary requirements, the court could not consider what the contract actually stated. Therefore, it struck down the exception of prematurity.
The lower court also decided that there was no cause of action in this case, which means that the complaining party did not have a remedy under the law so he should not have brought the case. The appeals court is allowed to review no cause of action dismissals under de novo review. The injured party argued that he could sue the contractor as individual and not just the company, but the lower court disagreed. The lower court stated that he could only sue the company because the contract was not with the contractor as individual. Since the appeals court would review the issue under de novo review, limited to the petition and its attachments, the court found that there is a cause of action against the individual contractor. The appeals court is not allowed to look at evidence introduced at all at this level, so it did not matter that the parties did not enter the contract itself into evidence. The appeals court decided that there could be error under La. R.S. 12:1320, which implies that employees, members, agents, or managers may be liable for the company with which they work.
Given their decisions, the appeals court remanded the case to the lower court to determine the issues with the mediation agreement and to assume that there is a cause of action so that the case can go to trial. The appeals court processes can be very complicated, especially given their various evidentiary requirements and standards of review. It is important to have competent attorneys on your team that know all of these concepts.
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