A statement of decision is the court’s formal explanation of the factual and legal basis for its decision. In some cases, the court is required to give a statement of decision. And in San Francisco v. Hale (D1d2 Feb. 17, 2022 no. A161503) 2022 WL 483925, the failure to provide a statement of decision was reversible error.
The appellant in Hale was a mother disputing a visitation order. The court had found the father committed domestic abuse, so under Family Code section 3044, that created a rebuttable presumption that custody was detrimental to the child. The father did not rebut that presumption, yet the court ordered nearly equal-time visitation — in effect, joint custody.
The mother timely requested a statement of decision, but the court said, “I'm not going to issue a statement of decision on this case.”
The Court of Appeal reversed. The trial court’s failure to issue a statement of decision was error. And because the trial court gave no explanation that could support its order, the Court of Appeal found the error was prejudicial.
A statement of decision is required after a trial. It is not required after law-and-motion hearings. But it may be required in some special proceedings. The court provided a helpful statement of the law to bookmark:
“In general, Code of Civil Procedure section 632, and therefore section 3022.3, “applies when there has been a trial followed by a judgment. (Maria P. v. Riles (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1281, 1294.) It does not apply to an order on a motion. (Ibid.) This is true even if the motion involves an evidentiary hearing and the order is appealable. (Gruendl v. Oewel Partnership, Inc. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 654, 660.)” (In re Marriage of Askmo (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 1032, 1040.) But “[e]xceptions to the general rule have been created for special proceedings. (Gruendl, ... at p. 660; accord, Maria P., ... at p. 1294.) In determining whether an exception should be created, the courts balance ‘ “(1) the importance of the issues at stake in the proceeding, including the significance of the rights affected and the magnitude of the potential adverse effect on those rights; and (2) whether appellate review can be effectively accomplished even in the absence of express findings.” [Citation.]’ (Gruendl, ... at p. 660.)” (In re Marriage of Askmo, at p. 1040.)
“ “[W]here the issues are sufficiently important, as in a child custody case, formal findings of fact and conclusions of law are required upon the request of a party, regardless of the nature of the proceedings.” (In re Marriage of S. (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 738, 747 [modification of custody order]; Michael U. v. Jamie B. (1985) 39 Cal.3d 787, 792 [“Although custody is a special proceeding, statutory and decisional law nevertheless require findings of fact when requested by a party”]; In re Rose G. (1976) 57 Cal.App.3d 406, 416 [findings of fact and conclusions of law required in proceedings to terminate parental rights].)”
Written findings facilitate meaningful appellate review grounded on the “policies set forth in the governing law,” which is “essential to the creation of the body of precedent necessary for the system of rebuttable presumptions to produce consistent and predictable results.” (Jaime G. v. H.L. (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 794, 806.)
The court concluded the failure to issue a statement of decision was prejudicial because “the record offers no explanation to reconcile the orders and demonstrate the court found the presumption rebutted.”
The court remanded for reconsideration of the visitation order consistent with the court’s analysis of the applicable presumption and custody rules.
The Upshot: If you are the prevailing party after a trial or a special proceeding where a statement of decision may be required, consider preparing a proposed statement of decision and submitting it to the trial court. This may cut off an argument on appeal that the omission of the statement of decision was error, and you may be able to bolster the record on appeal.
Tim Kowal helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at www.CALPodcast.com, and publishes a newsletter of appellate tips for trial attorneys at www.tvalaw.com/articles. His appellate practice covers all of California's appellate districts and throughout the Ninth Circuit, with appellate attorneys in offices in Orange County and Monterey County. Contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 641-1232.
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