Like many other states and the United States federal courts, the State of Texas has a three-tiered court system. In the Texas court structure, there are district/county courts, appeals courts, and a state supreme court.
Specifically, at the appellate level (the middle level), there are fourteen separate courts of appeals with jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases. The Texas appellate courts are each assigned to a geographic area within the state. They are the First Court of Appeals Houston, Second Court of Appeals Fort Worth, Third Court of Appeals Austin, Fourth Court of Appeals San Antonio, Fifth Court of Appeals Dallas, Sixth Court of Appeals Texarkana, Seventh Court of Appeals Amarillo, Eighth Court of Appeals El Paso, Ninth Court of Appeals Beaumont, Tenth Court of Appeals Waco, Eleventh Court of Appeals Eastland, Twelfth Court of Appeals Tyler, Thirteenth Court of Appeals Corpus Christi, and Fourteenth Court of Appeals Houston. A complete list of the courts and the counties they serve can be found here.
Each of the appellate courts is presided over by a chief justice and has two or more additional justices who help the chief justice render his or her opinions on cases. Texas state laws regarding appellate courts allow for between three and thirteen justices. Most appellate cases are heard by a standard panel of three justices.
The Texas appellate courts are busy with constant motions for reversal of district court decisions, with appellants seeking to have their cases reversed and remanded back to lower courts for a different outcome. What does it mean when a case is remanded? The answer is that a remanded case is sent back to the court where it originated, to be reheard by a judge or by a jury, with or without specific instructions to guide the procedures of the case.
To get to reversal/remand, the reversal review process can be lengthy, and winning a reversal can be challenging, sometimes for political or administrative reasons that have nothing to do with the actual merits of the case. We will explore these and other considerations in the paragraphs below.
What Is Reversal in the Texas Court of Appeals?
Reversal is another way of saying overturning or undoing Texas court judgments. It is essentially the “can I speak with your manager?” of judicial review. There are several standards of review that an appellate panel will select from when reviewing a request for a reversal and/or remand of a lower court decision.
An appellate court’s standard of review for overturning the lower court includes “de novo” review – or the formation of an entirely new record, and “abuse of discretion” review – a more narrow review standard which provides considerable discretion to the lower court and often results in lower court decisions being upheld.
Under the abuse of discretion standard of review, the appellate court approaches each case with “deference,” or, with the mindset that the lower court was in the best position to assess testimony and documents, and, absent plain error by the lower court judge, will rarely disturb the lower court ruling.
Finally, under the doctrine of harmless error, a court of appeals may not reverse a lower court decision unless the error below “probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment” or “probably prevented the appellant from properly presenting the case to the court of appeals.” See Tex. R. App. A 44.1. The applicable standard of review for each appeal varies bases on the nature of the appeal brought before the appellate court.
Reversal Rates in Texas Appeals
As demonstrated in a recent study by Kent Rutter and Natasha Breaux, Reasons for Reversal in the Texas Courts of Appeals, the statewide reversal rate in Texas has seen an overall decline in recent years, down to 30% during the most recent phase of the long-term study.
As a general rule, what happens when you appeal a case is that some lower court decisions are affirmed, while others result in a reversed and remanded court case. (As discussed above, what happens when a case is reversed and remanded is that it is sent back to the lower court for a new disposition).
Among the findings of their study, Rutter and Breaux noted that where spikes in reversals did occur, they were largely due to new justices taking the bench and politics in large metropolitan areas like Dallas and Houston shifting back and forth between Republican and Democrat. New justices, the researchers found, were far less afraid of overturning the decisions of their colleagues in the lower courts and far more inclined to disagree with the decisions of the ‘old guard.’ Thus, political changes are generally favorable climates for litigants seeking reversals of decisions.
Reasons for Appealing a Verdict in Texas
There are different grounds for appeal based upon the type of reversal sought. Here are several of the most common pathways under the law of reversal in Texas:
When a trial court judge enters a jury verdict into the record, the most common reason for reversal is that the evidence presented during the trial was legally insufficient to support the verdict or one of the parties was otherwise entitled to judgment as a matter of law, meaning a judgment without the need for a jury’s deliberation. If this type of appeal is brought by an aggrieved litigant, the standard of review is de novo, or from the beginning, without deference to the court’s earlier findings. Often included in this category are judgments that are reversed due to legally insufficient evidence, or no evidence, supporting essential elements of a cause of action such as duty of care, causation, or damages.
The most common reason for reversal following bench trials (trials before judges) is that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the judgment, or one of the parties was otherwise entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Examples include judgments that were reversed because of no evidence of a fiduciary relationship, improper characterization of property in a divorce proceeding, statute of limitations, and the plain language of an applicable ordinance.
Reversals following bench trials may also be due to errors in procedure, such as commencing a bench trial in violation of a stay order without notice, conducting a bench trial when a jury trial was required, and signing the judgment even though a different judge had presided over the bench trial.
Most summary judgments are granted in favor of defendants, who may obtain a summary judgment by proving as a matter of law all elements of an affirmative defense, by disproving as a matter of law an essential component of the plaintiff’s claim, or by alleging that the plaintiff lacks evidence to support a critical element of its claim.
Summary reversals would follow as attempts by the non-prevailing party below to point the appellate court’s attention to a disputed material fact in issue, which makes summary judgment inappropriate and requires a final determination by a judge or a jury. See Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 166a.
Temporary injunctions, granted in the middle of proceedings to prevent irreparable harm from occurring, have the greatest incidents of reversal. The reason for the relatively high reversal rate may be that lawyers generally appeal from temporary injunctions only when the grounds for reversal are compelling and success is likely.
The Law Offices of Kretzer & Volderbing P.C. Can Help You in the Texas Civil Appeals Process
When you are trying to figure out how to navigate the appeals process, you will need lawyers with specific experience with appeals and reversals in Texas and who have the right knowledge and resources to help you. Contact attorneys Seth Kretzer and James Volberding today through our website or by phone at 713-775-3050 to discuss your concerns.
We are on your side, and we know exactly what to do to help guide you. Additionally, we have worked on countless Texas cases involving reversals for more than thirty years. We truly understand your situation, and we will do everything in our power to help you!