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Statements of Decision: A Segue to the Court of Appeal

By: Honey Kessler Amado

As Published in the Los Angeles County Bar Association Magazine
Litigation Section, Volume 12, #3, Spring 1996

Introduction

Few procedures seem to so bewilder and daunt bench and bar alike as do statements of decision. Yet, a statement of decision can be everyone's ally. For the trial court, the statement of decision is an opportunity to state its view of the facts and law of the case. For the losing litigant, the process of obtaining the statement of decision is an opportunity to point out perceived errors to the court, to assure a correct understanding of the facts, and to re-argue governing law. For the winning litigant, a clear, concise statement of decision can protect the victory on appeal.

The Statement Of Decision Defined
A statement of decision is an explanation of the factual and legal bases for the court's decision. The statement is required only where there have been factual issues in controversy. (A statement of decision is not required on purely legal issues which do not turn on controverted facts because a mistake in applying the law is a legal error, which is always within the province of the appellate court.)

A statement of decision is best understood in the context of the interplay between trial and appellate litigation. The trial court is the trier of fact. It alone weighs the credibility of witnesses and resolves conflicts in the evidence. In contrast, the appellate court decides questions of law, looking only for prejudicial error by the trial court. The appellate court applies three standards of review: 1) abuse of discretion, including whether the trial court applied the law correctly; 2) sufficiency of the evidence to support the judgment or order, and 3) independent, de novo review of strictly legal issues which do not turn on conflicts in the evidence.

In its review process, the appellate court applies certain presumptions. First, and most compelling, a judgment or order of the trial court is presumed to be correct. Second, it is presumed that the trial court found all facts necessary to support the judgment. In applying these presumptions, the court of appeal must accept as correct the factual determinations of the trial court which are supported by substantial evidence.

The statement of decision serves either to underscore or to avoid these presumptions. A statement of decision which clearly sets forth the facts in support of the judgment will give life and direction to the argument on appeal that the judgment is supported by sufficient evidence. Counsel on appeal can easily argue in favor of the application of the presumption that the trial court found all facts necessary to support its judgment. Similarly, a statement of decision which explains the trial court's legal bases for its decision lends support to the presumption on appeal that the judgment is correct.

On the other hand, where a statement of decision reveals an incorrect understanding of the facts or an incorrect application of the law, and these errors have been pointed out to the trial court, the appellate court will not indulge the presumptions on appeal of the correctness of the judgment or of the sufficiency of the facts to support the judgment. Thus, a statement of decision properly requested or properly challenged can be a means of avoiding the presumptions on appeal.

The statement of decision serves two other important functions. First, it frames and identifies the issues on appeal. This assists the litigants in weighing the merits of an appeal and may cause some to abandon their appeal as futile. Framing the issues also precludes any debate in the appellate court as to the nature or identification of the principal issues addressed below. Second, the statement of decision allows the trial court to review its memorandum of intended decision and "to make Y corrections, additions, or deletions it deems necessary or appropriate." The statement of decision is one of the few tools available for attempting to convince the trial court of "the error of its ways," thereby obviating the need for an appeal. This unique opportunity to persuade the trial court to reverse or modify itself should be indulged, not avoided.

The Procedures For Obtaining A Statement Of Decision
Where a non-jury, civil trial lasts more than eight hours, the statement of decision must be requested within ten days after the trial court announces its tentative decision. Where a trial has lasted less than eight hours, whether or not spanning more than one day, the statement of decision must be requested before the matter is submitted for decision.

The request for a statement of decision must identify the principal controverted issues which the requesting party wants addressed in the statement. The request may be made by either the prevailing or the losing party. As discussed above, a statement of decision can either protect the judgment on appeal or reveal its errors. Thus, where an appeal is anticipated, it behooves either the prevailing or losing party to request a statement of decision. Litigants should overcome the reluctance to request a statement of decision. Especially in short matters, where the request must be submitted before a decision is rendered, the request need not be seen as an anticipation of a loss.

Once a request for a statement of decision has been made, any party may propose additional issues to be addressed in the statement. One should not oppose or otherwise challenge a request. The statement of decision itself can be appropriately narrowed, regardless of the breath or depth of the request. For example, in one case a flurry of pleadings were filed, debating the quality and breadth of a request. This was an unnecessary expenditure of time and legal fees. The better approach would have been for the party directed to prepare the statement of decision to have done so on whatever principal controverted issues he understood to have been included in the request and for the debate to have ensued on the quality and inclusiveness of the statement itself.

The court may alone prepare the statement of decision itself. However, the court typically appoints counsel for one party or the other, not necessarily the requesting party, to prepare the statement. Counsel must file and serve the proposed statement of decision within 15 days after notice of the appointment to prepare one, or within 15 days of the expiration of the time to file proposals to the content of the statement, whichever is latest.

Any party affected by the judgment then has 15 days from the filing of the proposed statement of decision to file objections to that proposed statement. A party may object to the factual findings as incorrect or as unsupported by the evidence, and may object to the legal grounds for the decision as an incorrect application of the law. The court may finalize the statement without setting a hearing on the objections.

The Content Of A Statement Of Decision
The statement of decision contains the factual findings and legal conclusion of the trial court on the principal controverted issues identified by the parties. The elusive term "principal controverted issues" may be best defined as the elements of the causes of action at issue. The term can also be understood as the issues framed by the pleadings. The definition of "material issue" also assists in understanding the concept of principal controverted issue. A material issue is "one which is relevant and essential to the judgment and closely and directly related to the trial court's determination of the ultimate issue in the case."

Litigants often seek a statement of decision on a myriad of factual or legal issues. While not an error, the statement of decision need not address each question raised in a request. The court can narrow its statement simply to the principal controverted issues identified in the request. The danger, then, of a haphazard or over-broad approach to identifying issues for the anticipated statement of decision is that a principal controverted issue not clearly identified may be omitted from the statement to the detriment of the requesting party.

There is a tendency by some litigators to seek a statement of decision on every factual dispute, large and small -- evidentiary and ultimate, in a given controversy. Yet a statement of decision is required only on the "ultimate facts" of the principal controverted issues. The distinction between a finding on all evidentiary facts and a finding on the principal controverted issues is well illustrated in People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc. The issues at trial were whether Casa Blanca would be liable for civil penalties and whether it would be subject to injunctive orders. The court noted:

Rather than a request for the legal/factual basis for the court's decision on the issues framed by the pleadings, [Casa Blanca] made 16 demands, each with several subparts. The subparts would require the trial court to answer over 75 questions and make a list of findings on evidentiary facts on issues not controverted by the pleadings. Y Casa Blanca seeks an inquisition, a rehearing of the evidence. The trial court was not required to provide specific answers so long as the findings in the statement of decision fairly disclose the court's determination of all material issues.

While Casa Blanca argued that the statement of decision was inadequate, the appellate court explained that the statement of decision was clear and reasonably organized. The statement of decision established that the court had found 67 acts in violation of nursing home regulations, which fell into ten different categories of punishable acts occurring in Casa Blanca facilities on a repeated basis. The court listed exactly how many "acts" had occurred within each category. More than 1,000 record keeping violations were determined to be 17 "acts," based upon 17 separate sets of patient records. The 1,000 separate violations were not stated. Twelve different occurrences regarding health care were described and aggregated into two broad "acts" (failure to render treatment and giving treatment without an order), each aggregated "act" giving rise to a penalty. The court was not required to provide the evidentiary detail supporting its ultimate findings of facts.

The statement of decision is a critical link between the trial court and the appellate court. Thus, counsel should be careful to draft a concise statement of decision which organizes the cogent facts around the principal controverted issues.

The Impact Of Failing To Request Or Object To A Statement Of Decision
The statement of decision must address the principal controverted issues identified by the parties. Any factual errors, ambiguities or omissions in the proposed statement of decision must be timely brought to the attention of the trial court. Otherwise, such deficiencies will be deemed waived and may not be argued as grounds for relief in the appellate court. As Justice Mosk of the California Supreme Court stated, "Y [I]t would be unfair to allow counsel to lull the trial court and opposing counsel into believing the statement of decision was acceptable, and thereafter to take advantage of an error on appeal although it could have been corrected at trial."

If a party objects to a perceived deficiency in a proposed statement of decision, thereby giving the trial court an opportunity to correct itself, and the trial court does not correct the error, the appellate court will not indulge the appellate presumptions favoring the prevailing party. Specifically, the appellate court will not presume that the judgment is correct and that the trial court found all facts necessary to support the judgment.

Similarly, where a party timely and validly requests a statement of decision and the court fails to render one, that failure is reversible error per se. However, the matter is not reversed on the merits of the judgment; rather, it is reversed and remanded to secure a statement of decision.

Where a party fails to request a statement of decision or fails to object to some defect in the statement, the appellate court may presume that the trial court found all facts necessary to support the judgment. This is the doctrine of "implied findings." In this event, the issue on appeal becomes whether or not the "implied findings" are supported by the evidence.

An exception to the doctrine of implied findings involves legal conclusions drawn by the trial court. An erroneous legal conclusion is a legal error. A failure to object to a legal error which appears on the face of the statement of decision is not a waiver of that objection because a legal error is a question of law; questions of law are always within the province of the appellate court whether or not addressed in a statement of decision. Further, a legal conclusion results from the court's legal analysis of the facts before it. Whether or not the appellate court finds or implies sufficient facts to support the judgment does not impact the faulty legal reasoning of the trial court.

Statements Of Decision After A Hearing
Code of Civil Procedure section 632 speaks of statements of decision after trial. Yet nothing in the codes or court rules precludes the issuance of a statement of decision after any hearing which results in an appealable order.

A court is not required to render a statement of decision after granting or denying a motion, even where the motion includes an evidentiary hearing or turns upon conflicting affidavits or other evidence. While a statement of decision is not required after a motion (or if not timely requested in any context), the trial court arguably may issue one nonetheless if it so desires. The statutes and rules do not limit the circumstances under which a statement of decision is permitted. Consider these observations by Justice Marcel Poche of the California Court of Appeal, First District:

Y [T]here is much to commend in the practice of trial courts making the fullest possible explication of their rulings and decisions. This [appellate] court finds it virtually impossible to conceive of a situation where its task of informed review would not be measurably assisted by having the most detailed statement of a lower court's reasoning behind a decision we are asked to overturn. If a trial court, in addition to managing its inevitably congested calendar, conscientiously takes the time and trouble to explain the basis for a particular decision, this inures to the benefit of all concerned. The losing party is better able to evaluate the prospects for review. The prevailing party is better able to defend its victory. The reviewing court has a fuller appreciation of the action it must either sustain or reject. [Citations omitted.] It seems the height of foolhardiness to discourage a court from advising us and the parties as to the precise grounds for decision.

Conclusion

Statements of decision are a significant link between the trial court and appellate court processes. As Justice Poche explained, the statement of decision gives the appellate court a fuller appreciation of the action it must either reject or sustain. An appellant's chances of prevailing on appeal diminish exponentially without an appropriate statement of decision. A thorough and sound statement of decision strengthens a respondent's already advantageous position on appeal. For the trial court, the statement of decision allows its voice to be heard beyond the simple text of the judgment or order.

1 "...[It is an] immutable fact of nature accepted as a truism by any person who has ever sat as a trial judge -- findings were a pain. ... [&] ... [T]he labels may have changed, but the game is the same." (R.E. Folcka Construction, Inc. v. Medallion Home Loan (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 50, 54.)
2 Marriage of Ditto (1988) 206 Cal.App.3d 643.
3 Code of Civil Procedure '632.
4 Elysium Institute, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles (1991) 232 Cal.App.3d 408, 421, fn. 2 ("It is axiomatic that a statement of decision is required only as to issues of fact decided by the trial court Y, not as to issues of law.")
5 Hellman v. La Cumbre Golf and Country Club (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 1224, 1229.
6 Tupman v. Haberkern (1929) 208 Cal. 256, 262-263.

7 Generally, in a civil matter the appellate court reviews for error by the trial court, not by counsel. If counsel neglects to raise certain issues to the trial court or fails to present adequate evidence, these are errors of counsel and cannot be redressed on appeal.
8 Marriage of Arceneaux (1990) 51 Cal.3d 1130, 1133.
9 Marriage of Ditto, supra, 206 Cal.App.3d at 649.
10 Hasson v. Ford Motor Co. (1977) 19 Cal.3d 530, 544.
11 See Code of Civil Procedure '634; Marriage of Arceneaux, supra, 51 Cal.3d at 1133.

As discussed within, absent the request for a statement of decision or absent pointing out to the trial court the ambiguities or errors in the statement of decision, the presumptions of correctness on appeal will be applied. (See Marriage of Arceneaux, supra, 51 Cal.3d at 1133.)
12 Miramar Hotel Corp. v. Frank B. Hall and Co. (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 1126, 1128.
13 See id., 163 Cal.App.3d at 1130.
14 Marriage of Ditto, supra, 206 Cal.App.3d at 647.
15 Of course, the reverse can occur as well. In the process of preparing and refining the statement of decision, it may be so well polished that the grounds for an appeal evaporate. While disappointing, the resultant statement of decision saves the client the time and the substantial dollars lost in pursuing a doomed appeal.
16 Code of Civil Procedure '632.
17 Ibid.
18 Miramar Hotel Corp. v. Frank B. Hall and Co., supra,, 163 Cal.App.3d at 1130; People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc. (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 509, 525; Hellman v. La Cumbre Golf and Country Club, supra, 6 Cal.App.4th at 1230.
19 California Rules of Court, Rule 232(b).
20 Miramar Hotel Corp. v. Frank B. Hall and Co., supra, 163 Cal.App.3d at 1130; People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc., supra, 159 Cal.App.3d at 525; Hellman v. La Cumbre Golf and Country Club, supra, 6 Cal.App.4th at 1230.

21 Id., Rule 232(c).
22 Ibid.
23 Id., Rule 232(d).
24 Id., Rule 232(f).
25 See Code of Civil Procedure '632.
26 See People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc. (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 509, 525.
27 Midwest Television, Inc. v. Scott, Lancaster, Mills and Atha, Inc. (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d 442, 457.
28 Golden Eagle Ins. Co. v. Foremost Insurance Co. (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1372, 1380.
29 Miramar Hotel Corp. v. Frank B. Hall and Co., supra, 163 Cal.App.3d at 1130; People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc., supra, 159 Cal.App.3d at 525; Hellman v. La Cumbre Golf and Country Club, supra, 6 Cal.App.4th at 1230.
30 A litigant should not expect the trial court to address issues not stated in the request for a statement of decision. It is the responsibility of counsel, not the court, to identify the issues it wants addressed.
31 People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc., supra, 159 Cal.App.3d at 525. 32 Id., at 524.
33 People v. Casa Blanca, supra, 159 Cal.App.3d at 526.
34 Code of Civil Procedure '632.
35 Marriage of Arceneaux, supra, 51 Cal.3d at 1133-1134; Golden Eagle Insurance Co. v. Foremost Insurance Co., supra, 20 Cal.App.4th at 1380.
36 Marriage of Arceneaux, supra, 51 Cal.3d at 1138.
37 Id., 51 Cal.3d at 1133.
38 Miramar Hotel Corp. v. Frank B. Hall and Co., supra, 163 Cal.App.3d at 1129.

39 Marriage of Ananeh-Firempong (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 272, 285; Social Services Union/SEIU, AFL-CIO v. County of Monterey (1989) 208 Cal.App.3d 676, 681.
40 Marriage of Hebbring (1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 1260, 1274.
41 Marriage of Arceneaux, supra, 51 Cal.3d at 1133-1134; Golden Eagle Insurance Co. v. Foremost Insurance Co., supra, 20 Cal.App.4th at 1380; Marriage of Hebbring, supra, 207 Cal.App.3d at 1274.
42 United Services Auto Association v. Dalrymple (1991) 232 Cal.App.3d 182, 186.
43 Ibid.
44 In certain family law proceedings, the parties are entitled to a statement of decision regardless of the nature of the proceedings. (See Family Code sections 2127, 3032, 3041, 3087, 3654, 4005(b), 4056, 4332, and 4972.)

Also, when a matter is referred to a referee pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 638, the referee must issue a statement of decision without a request. (Marriage of Demblewski (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 232, 236.)
45 Malouf Bros. v. Dixon (1991) 230 Cal.App.3d 280, 284; Marriage of Simmons (1975) 49 Cal.App.3d 833, 836-837.
46 Gonzales v. Jones (1981) 116 Cal.App.3d 978, 983, 987, fn. 6.
47 Clinton v. Joshua Hendy Corp. (1966) 244 Cal.App.2d 183, 188.
48 Kahn v. Superior Court (1988) 204 Cal.App.3d 1168, 1173, fn. 4.
49 Id., 204 Cal.App.3d at 1174, fn. 4; emphasis added.