Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Family Law

Celebrity Attorney Christopher Melcher on What Gets the Courts’ Attention

High-profile and celebrity family law attorney Christopher Melcher has represented some of the largest divorce cases in California, including multiple cases ending in published appellate decisions. Chris talks with Jeff Lewis and Tim Kowal about how celebrity-driven cases shape the law, such as the #FreeBritney movement against conservatorship abuse.

Chris then talks about a way to bring more attention to non-celebrity cases through requests for publication of nonpublished opinions that raise important issues. And what kinds of cases pique the Supreme Court’s interest? It is often not what you think, says Chris, which is where bar networks come in handy in keeping up on legal trends.

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What Family Law Attorneys Can Miss on Appeals

Victoria Fuller, a certified appellate specialist focusing on family law, explains what family law attorneys most often misunderstand about the appellate process.

Her answer: “substantial evidence” review. Appellate review of a factual finding doesn’t just mean deference to the trial court. It means the appellate court considers only—only—the other side’s evidence, and completely disregards your evidence.

This means that, to have a shot on appeal, you have to look at your case a whole new way.

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Why Family Law Writ Petitions Are So Hard

We asked Victoria Fuller, a certified appellate specialist focusing on family law, about getting the appellate court’s attention in family law writ petitions. Showing extraordinary harm in money cases is a tough sell, but it should work in family cases, right?

Victoria explains that it is just just very hard, even when there is genuine irreparable harm like in move-away orders.

In another moment during our discussion, Victoria told us that even family law justices, upon being elevated to an appellate justiceship, have commented they had no idea just how vast is a family law judge’s discretion.

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Victoria Fuller on Family Law Appeals: Episode 27 of the California Appellate Law Podcast

When we covered some of the tips and pitfalls of family-law appeals on episode 6 of the California Appellate Law Podcast, it became one of our most popular episodes. So we invited Victoria Fuller, a certified appellate specialist focusing on family law, to join us for another installment.

Victoria discusses with Jeff Lewis and me:
• The unique post-judgment relief available under Fam. Code, § 2122 for fraud, duress, mistake, and financial-disclosure violations;
• Expanded relief on motions for reconsideration; and
• The critical statement of decision process.

Despite these remedies, why do family-law appeals feel like such an uphill climb?
(Answer: because family-court judges have so much discretion even they don’t realize the full extent of it.)

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Family Law Judgment Reversed for Failure to Provide a Statement of Decision

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.

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Trial Court's Exclusion of Evidence Was Error Requiring Reversal of Order Denying Restraining Order

Judges have a lot of leeway to exclude evidence at trial. But in *Brubaker v. Andy Strum* (D2d7 Dec. 10, 2021) 2021 WL 5856791 (no. B307887) (nonpub. opn.), the exclusion was an abuse of discretion. The trial judge excluded the evidence supporting the appellant's motion for a renewed domestic violence restraining order because he thought the evidence of harassment was barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion. But the judge misunderstood the doctrine of issue preclusion. That was a legal error. As a legal error was the basis of the exclusion, the exclusion order had to be reversed.

**The upshot**: Evidentiary rulings normally are difficult to challenge on appeal, being subject to the deferential abuse of discretion standard. But when an evidentiary ruling is based on an error of law, you may be entitled to something more like de novo review. That is what happened in this case.

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Renewed Restraining Order Affirmed on Appeal; Appellant Forfeited Challenge by Failing to Describe All Evidence Supporting the Order

In appeals from mixed discretionary and factual findings, it can be tempting to fault the trial court for failing to consider all the great evidence in the appellant's favor. But be careful not to ignore the "heavy burden" required to get review on the factual questions. Failing to comprehensively evaluate the evidence against the appellant resulted in a forfeiture of the issues on the appeal in Ashby v. Ashby (D4d3 Aug. 5, 2021) 2021 WL 3413092 no. G058474 (nonpub. opn.).

Reviewing a renewal of a DVRO, the court analyzed the Ritchie factors and found that findings supporting the original DVRO, a key point of the analysis, were not properly captured in the appellant's brief. So the issue was forfeited. Order affirmed.

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Family Judge's Refusal to Consider a Pre-Dissolution Mental Evaluation Is an Abuse of Discretion

Family court appeals are difficult because they delay an already bitter experience. The Court of Appeal is aware of this when it admonishes the family court that a recent appeal "might never have arisen had the trial court exercised its authority to make a capacity determination."

Despite repeated objections by the wife that the husband's recent life-threatening injuries had caused a behavioral change and mental disturbance affecting his capacity, the family judge in In re Marriage of Hermes (D4d3 Jun. 16, 2021) no. G058623 (nonpub. opn.) had credited the husband's attorney's improvident view that the family court does not need to determine capacity issues.

In fact, yes, the family court does need to adjudicate claims of mental capacity.

In the trial court, there is much to be said for the Al Davis rule: "Just win, baby." But leading the trial court to misunderstand its legal obligations should be regarded an exception to that rule.

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Denial of Domestic Violence Restraining Order Reversed; Improper to Refuse Evidence of Recent Abuse, Appeals Court Holds

Family court orders, such as domestic violence restraining orders, are often difficult to reverse because they are subject to a very deferential standard on appeal. A Court of Appeal will only reverse if it concludes the family court abused its discretion. But the abuse-of-discretion standard has limits. And when the family court misapplies the legal and evidentiary rules entirely, its rulings are entitled to no discretion at all.

That is what happened in Marriage of F.M. and M.M. (D1d1 May 28, 2021) no. A160669 (non-pub.). The trial court ruled that although the parties "definitely need to stay away from each other," the court concluded "[t]hat doesn't mean that there needs to be domestic violence restraining orders." Instead, the court ordered mother to move out of the house (even though no one asked for that).

The court also categorically refused to consider mother's testimony that father had threatened violence after the TRO was issued.

But that is not how any of this works, the First District Court of Appeal held.

Reversed and remanded.

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Spousal Support Order Reversed on Appeal for Lack of Explicit Findings

In this dissolution proceeding in Nevai v. Klemunes (In re Marriage of Nevai) (D3 Dec. 29, 2020) No. C086584, wife, who had quit her engineering career to raise the couple's child, asked […]

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Family Law Appeals: The Cal. Appellate Law Podcast Episode 6

TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal and co-host Jeff Lewis discuss family law appeals in the latest episode of the California Appellate Law Podcast. In addition to some nuts-and-bolts procedure, we […]

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