How to Appeal a Civil Case

Three Parts:Deciding Whether to AppealFiling Your AppealAppealing Your Case

If you have just finished a civil trial to which you were a party, just because you received an unfavorable judgment does not mean that you don't have options. You have the right to appeal your case to a higher, or appellate, court in hopes of having the appellate court reverse or change the lower court's decision in some way. The appellate process is a complicated one, and not all appeals succeed, but understanding when you can appeal and how to do so will help you if you find yourself on the losing end of a trial.

Part 1
Deciding Whether to Appeal

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    Appeal after the lower court makes its final judgment. An appeal is not a retrial or a new trial of a case, and appellate courts do not usually consider new witnesses or evidence.[1] There is no jury.[2] Instead of one judge presiding over the case, appellate courts consist of a panel of several judges (usually three) who will hear your appeal.
    • An appeal may only take place after the lower court has issued its final ruling.[3] This means the lower court has ruled on all issues involved in the case and that there is nothing left for the parties to do except to comply with the lower court's judgment.
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    Appeal a civil case as either party to the original lawsuit. In a civil case, either party (plaintiff or defendant, winner or loser) may appeal a lower court's judgement before a higher court.[4] For example, if you won the case but were unsatisfied with the amount of damages awarded, you could appeal. If you lost, you could appeal because you don't believe the lower court should have ruled against you.[5]
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    Appeal when the lower court made an error. After a lower court gives its judgment, a party wishing to appeal that judgement must present arguments that there was either (1) an error in the trial procedure in the lower court or (2) that the lower-court judge made an error in applying the relevant law. The lower court's error must also be considered "harmful"—meaning that if the error hadn't happened, the lower court would have ruled differently.[6]If you simply do not like the verdict that was entered against you, this is not grounds for an appeal.
    • For example, if the instructions given to the jury regarding how to decide your case were unfair or inaccurate in some way, if you were not allowed to represent yourself, or if certain evidence was improperly admitted during trial, this type of procedural error would provide a reason for you to appeal your case.
    • Alternatively, if the law of your state says one thing, and the judge who ruled on your case did another, this is also grounds for appeal.
    • Deciding if what happened during your case is grounds for an appeal is not an easy question to answer. It would be best to talk to an attorney to determine if your case should be appealed.

Part 2
Filing Your Appeal

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    File your appeal by the appropriate date. There is a very strict deadline you must meet in order to be able to appeal your case, that starts from when the lower court issues its final decision on your case. Though this deadline varies by jurisdiction, you generally must begin the appeal process by filing a notice of appeal within 30 days from the day the lower court issued its final decision.[7] If you do not meet this deadline, your appeal will be dismissed and you will lose your right to appeal your case.
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    File a notice of appeal with the appropriate court. In some states, this notice must be filed in the lower court who then files a notice with the appellate court. In other states, this notice is filed directly with the appellate court. Contact your county clerk, or look on the website for your jurisdiction's lower or appellate court and ask for the appropriate court in which to file a notice of appeal. Once you have determined the correct court in which to file the notice of appeal, fill out the form and submit it. This formally begins the appellate process.
    • This is usually a standard form, and should be available on the website of your state's courts.[8] If you are having trouble locating this form, contact your county clerk, who should have this form on file.
    • You will also have to pay a filing fee when you submit this notice to the relevant court.
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    File any required supplemental documents. Some jurisdictions require that a supplemental form or cover sheet be filed with your notice of appeal. As before, check with the clerk’s office for the court in which you must file the notice of appeal to determine if there are any other documents you must file along with it. Try locating the relevant clerk’s contact information on your court’s website.[9]
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    Serve the other parties with a copy of the notice of appeal. Provide the other party or parties to the original lawsuit with a copy of your notice of appeal by mailing each a copy of the notice and any other documents you filed alongside it. If that party has an attorney, serve that attorney instead.
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    File an appeal or "supersedeas" bond. In a civil case, just because you file an appeal does not mean that you do not have to comply with the judgement of the lower court.[10] For example, if you are ordered to pay a certain amount to the other party—even if you think you can successfully appeal the case and get a judgement in your favor—you will still have to do so. However, if you file a certain amount of money with the appellate court, this will allow you to wait to pay the other party until your appeal is complete.
    • The specifics for filing this bond (and the amount of the bond) vary depending on your jurisdiction.[11] Contact the clerk of the appellate court in which you filed a notice of appeal, or ask your attorney, to find out what rules apply in your jurisdiction.
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    Obtain a transcript of the lower court proceedings. You will need this record of what happened during trial in the lower court as evidence for your appeal. Your arguments will center around what occurred on the record only, and so you must have a copy to reference. The procedure for obtaining such a transcript varies from state to state. You may need to file a formal request for a transcript, or the notice of appeal may prompt the lower court to begin preparing one. Check with the clerk in the county where the final judgment was entered for instructions on obtaining this record.

Part 3
Appealing Your Case

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    Draft a written brief to support your appeal. After you have filed a notice of appeal, you have a specified amount of time (this varies by jurisdiction) in which to file a written brief to support your case. This brief is a document that sets forth your view of the facts of the case and provides the legal arguments (using relevant case law and statutes) that tell the appellate court why the lower court should have ruled differently.[12] Each jurisdiction has its own set of rules that determines certain requirements for this written brief. Make sure you follow them.
    • After you file your brief, the other side has a specified amount of time to file an answer to your brief, in which they will discuss why the lower court ruled correctly.
    • This brief is the most important part of your appeal. It is the first thing the appellate judges will see, so be sure to make your best argument possible in your brief.[13] Do not leave any arguments unaddressed or save anything for later in the appellate process.
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    Submit your brief to the appropriate appellate court. Mail or deliver in person your finished brief, along with all supporting records and documents in person to the clerk of the court that will be hearing your appeal. Make sure to submit the required number of copies of these documents as well.
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    Serve the other party. Deliver a copy of your brief and supporting documentation to the other party or, if the other party has an attorney, to that attorney so the other party may review your arguments.
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    Draft a reply brief if necessary. If the other party responds to your brief, you have the option of drafting a reply to it in order to address the other party's responses to your original brief. Make sure to consult the appropriate rules to determine the proper formatting for your second brief, as it may be different than it was for your first brief.
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    Request oral arguments. The process known as "oral argument" is a formal discussion between the lawyers for each side and the panel of appellate judges that provides each side an opportunity to present any matters of law that are in dispute.[14] It will provide you a second opportunity to present your reasons for why the lower court's ruling should be changed, but you must request it in order to have this opportunity.[15]
    • The appellate court may also require each party to participate in oral arguments, but it is best to make sure you have this opportunity by formally requesting it from the appellate court that will be hearing your appeal.
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    Participate in oral arguments. If your case is not decided based on your written brief, you and your attorney may be called to participate in oral arguments before the appellate court. Each side is usually given about 15 minutes to give their arguments, and during this period the judges may ask questions of either side.
    • Before making a ruling, the appellate judges will consider (1) the written record of the trial before the lower court, (2) the briefs submitted by both parties, and (3) the oral arguments made during this stage of the appeal.[16]
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    Wait for the appellate court to issue its judgment. After the appellate judges hear the arguments on both sides and confer to discuss the merits of the case, they will issue a written decision describing how they ruled on your case. They may send the case back to the trial court with new instructions on how to try the case, ask a higher court to review the case, dismiss the case, or affirm the lower court's decision.[17][18]
    • Generally, the appellate court will only reverse the lower court's judgement if the lower court made an error in applying the relevant law to your case.[19]
    • If you are on the losing side of the appeal, you may file a petition for something called a "writ of certiorari," asking the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case.[20] Typically, however, the Supreme Court will only choose to hear a case in this manner if the matter involved is of unusual importance or if different courts have issued different rulings on the same legal question. The Supreme Court grants these requests usually less than 100 times each year.[21]


  • Make sure you understand the Rules of Appellate Procedure for your jurisdiction. The appeals process is a highly formalized and structured one, with many strict deadlines and requirements you must follow in order for your appeal to be successful.
  • As the appellate process is so complex, it is best to hire an experienced attorney to help you throughout the proceedings. This attorney will draft your brief, participate in oral arguments, and make sure all necessary documents and notices are filed with the correct court in a timely manner.


  • A first appeal may be your only chance to have the lower court's decision reversed. Make sure you make it count!
  • Federal appellate process and state appellate process differ. Make sure you understand which court will hear your appeal.
  • Make sure to treat deadlines with the utmost respect. Failing to adhere to these will result in you losing your right to appeal your case.

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Categories: Civil Litigation