In the previous part of this blog on Appeals in Tennessee Civil Cases, we discussed appeals from two lower-level courts in Tennessee. This time, we’ll discuss appeals from courts of record in Tennessee, which are the Circuit and Chancery Courts in each county.
Appeals from Circuit and Chancery Courts must be made within thirty days and will generally go to the Court of Appeals for that part of the state. Tennessee’s Court of Appeals is divided into sections for West, Middle and East Tennessee. At this level, the judgment of the Circuit or Chancery Court is still in effect while the appeal is pending unless a proper motion for a stay on appeal is filed and granted. Even then, the appealing litigant is most likely going to be required to post some sort of bond for the stay in addition to the basic cost bond which must be posted, often for the entire amount of any money judgment granted against them.
The standard of review at the Court of Appeals is not “de novo” but is a review of the judgment from the court below, and is usually based on whether the judge below committed an error of law. What that means, in plain English, is that simply disagreeing with the Circuit Judge or Chancellor’s perception of the facts, is not a valid basis for appeal. The appeal does not involve trying the case over before the Court of Appeals nor do you get an opportunity here to have the Court of Appeals hear new evidence in most cases. Instead, you must be able to show that the judge misapplied the law to the facts the judge found to exist at the time of your trial, or improperly considered or excluded evidence that might have changed the judge’s factual findings. At the Court of Appeals, you or your lawyer will write a brief outlining how you contend the judge in Circuit or Chancery did not correctly apply the law, and if you requested oral argument when filing your brief, your case will be docketed for an opportunity for oral argument. Oral argument is time-limited and is a very formal occasion during which testimony and new information is not permitted. It will be conducted before a three-judge panel and the judges will often ask questions about your position and the cases that you claim support your position.
If you do not win your appeal to the Court of Appeals, the next step is to request review by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The right to appeal to the Supreme Court is not automatic and this court will first have to be convinced that your case has some merit in terms of a unique or important legal issue that might help to clarify an area of law or allow the Supreme Court to rule on an important issue. The Supreme Court takes only a few cases, and if yours is not accepted for review, there is no further appeal.
As you can see, appealing an unfavorable decision from any court can be complicated and may require a degree of legal expertise that a lay person might not possess. As with any other legal proceeding, the person representing himself is bound by the rules and is presumed to know them. Not being familiar with the rules that apply to your appeal can mean your appeal will be dismissed and you will then be liable for what could be a significant amount of court costs, not to mention being bound by the judgment of the court that you disagreed with. If you need help with an appeal, or think you may have grounds for one, contact our office.