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Overview of the Civil Appellate Process

What is a Civil Appeal?

Under the laws of Minnesota and applicable court rules, some decisions of the district (trial) courts and of governmental agencies or bodies (such as city councils, school boards, and state departments) can be appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

Not all decisions are appealable immediately; sometimes a party must wait until the district court or governmental body has decided all issues in the same case or proceeding before an appeal can be filed. 

If there is a right to appeal, the party who appeals usually must show that the trial judge or governmental decision-maker made errors of law that affected the decision and that the Court of Appeals should reverse (overturn) the decision or remand (send it back) to the trial judge or governmental decisionmaker for more proceedings.

Appeals are usually very different from proceedings before a trial court, an administrative agency, or a child support magistrate: 

  • You must make all your arguments in writing.
  • You cannot present witnesses.
  • You cannot present new evidence. 
  • You can make arguments only about issues that:
    • you raised in the trial court or agency proceedings and 
    • were decided (ruled on) by the judge or other decision-maker. 
  • You usually cannot make new arguments on appeal. 

Most appeals do not focus on whether the trial judge or decision-maker correctly determined the facts of the case.  Instead, most appeals focus on the legal issues and whether the judge or decision-maker correctly applied the law after deciding any factual disputes.  You must do research, to see whether the trial court made legal errors that the Court of Appeals can correct.  Just because you are unhappy with the decision, or a decision contains some minor mistakes, that does not mean that it is legally wrong. 

If you lose on appeal in a civil case, you may be ordered to pay the opposing party's costs and disbursements (such as brief printing and copying charges).  If the court finds that your appeal is frivolous, or was taken for improper purposes, such as harassment of another party, you could be ordered to pay double costs and/or attorney fees.  It is important to consider these potential costs when deciding whether or not to file an appeal.

This Self-Help Center is a general guide to appellate procedures, but there are many different types of cases and many exceptions to the rules explained here.  You are responsible for researching court rules, caselaw, and statutes that govern your case and for evaluating whether there is any reason to appeal in your case.

There are usually five stages to an appeal:

First stage - Serve and file appeal papers

To bring an appeal, the party who wants to challenge the decision must serve the appeal papers on the other parties and file them with the Court of Appeals and with the trial court or governmental agency within the time allowed; otherwise, the Court has no jurisdiction, and cannot review the decision.  The Court of Appeals cannot increase the time to serve and file a civil appeal or extend the deadline, for any reason. 

Second Stage - Transcript and record preparation

In the second stage of most (but not all) appeals, the record of what happened in the trial court or before the governmental agency must be prepared. 

In most cases, the appellant must ask the court reporter to prepare a written record of all the testimony presented by witnesses and parties (this is called preparing a transcript) and must pay the court reporter for doing so.  The court reporter will prepare the transcript from notes or tape recordings, and will make copies for the district court file and all of the parties. 

When it is requested by the Court of Appeals, the trial court file, with all of the papers and exhibits given to the trial court, and the transcript, will be sent to the Court to be reviewed along with the written arguments of the parties.  If there was no oral testimony or if a transcript is not needed, the Court of Appeals will review the written documents and exhibits filed with the trial court. 

When the Court is deciding an appeal, review is limited to the evidence that was presented to the trial court or governmental decisionmaker; the Court of Appeals cannot consider any new evidence on appeal.

Third Stage- Briefing

The appellant must file a written argument (called a brief) with the Court and serve it on the other parties, describing what happened at the trial court and explaining why the Court should reverse or remand the case. 

The appellant must include legal authorities (case citations, statutes, rules) and references to the transcript or record to support all statements of fact and arguments contained in the brief.  After the appellant's brief is served and filed, the other parties to the appeal submit their written arguments, explaining why they think the Court should affirm the decision.

Fourth Stage - Nonoral conference or oral arguments

In the fourth stage of most appeals, the Court will schedule the appeal to be discussed and decided by a panel of three judges. 

If any party does not have a lawyer, none of the parties can make an oral argument to the judges.  In that case, the judges will read the briefs and then discuss and decide the appeal at a nonoral conference.  The parties and their lawyers cannot attend a nonoral conference. 

If all of the parties who filed written briefs on appeal have lawyers, and if their lawyers have asked for oral argument, the Court may schedule oral arguments before a three-judge panel.  All oral arguments are open to the public; the parties are welcome to attend the oral arguments to listen to what their lawyers say, but the parties cannot testify or argue themselves.  Any party who fails to file and serve a written brief on appeal can listen to oral arguments by the attorneys, but the parties cannot make oral arguments themselves, under any circumstances. After an oral argument, the judges will discuss the case in private and decide the appeal.

Fifth and Final Stage- Decision

The fifth and final stage of most appeals is the decision.  In most  cases, a written decision (called an opinion) will be filed within 90 days after the date of the nonoral conference or the oral arguments, and that written decision will explain the reasons for the judges' decision on appeal.  The Court will not reconsider or rehear an appeal after the opinion has been filed.  All decisions of the court are public information and are available free of charge.

After an appeal has been decided, the party who won may be able to ask the Court for costs and disbursements related to the appeal.  The party who lost may petition the Minnesota Supreme Court to grant further review in the case, but there are additional fees, criteria for obtaining review, and time limits that apply to a petition for further review.  You should look at Rule 117 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Appellate Procedure for more information on that process.