STATEMENT OF DECISIONS
Simply put, a statement of decision is a formal explanation of a judge’s factual and legal basis for his or her decision following a bench trial. Most attorneys generally understand the basics of a statement of decision, however they often overlook its importance despite its huge impact on the appeal process.
A statement of decision requires the trial court to state, on the record, or in a subsequent written opinion, why it ruled the way it did on any contested fact. It is essentially the same thing as a statement of the court’s findings and its conclusions of fact. On appeal, any reviewing court is required to presume that every fact essential to the judgment was proven and found by the trial court if no statement of decision was requested and/or properly objected to. As a result, failure to request a statement of decision or object to inefficiencies therein may prove fatal to any appeal of the case.
How Does It Affect You?
First, a statement of decision is only available in non-jury proceedings where a question of fact is determined. Further, they are not automatic; a party must request it.
More importantly, even when available and requested, courts don’t always get it right! On occasion courts will be vague, ambiguous or flat out fail to resolve a material issue of ultimate fact in their statement of decision. Therefore, it is important to remember that if the parties do not object to unresolved or unaddressed issues in the statement of decision, their ability to challenge the court’s deficiencies will be limited on appeal. In re Marriage of Arceneaux, (1990) 51 Cal.3d 1130, 1133.
Procedure for Requesting a Statement of Decision.
The first requirement is that a request must be timely. What constitutes a timely request depends on the length of the trial. If the trial concludes within one day (8 hours or less), the request must be made before submitting the matters to the court for decision. If the trial takes longer than one day, the request must be made within ten (10) days from the day the court announces or serves the tentative ruling, whichever is later. Code of Civil Procedure § 632, and CRC § 3.1590(d). If the court’s tentative ruling is mailed to the parties, the time to request is extended five (5) calendar days. Code of Civil Procedure § 1013(a). The time to file the request begins when the tentative ruling was mailed, not from when it was given to the clerk or was signed or filed. Hutchins v. Galanda (1990) 216 Cal. App. 3d 1529, 1531. The second requirement is that the request must not only ask for a “Statement of Decision,” it must state the specific issues of fact that are in dispute by the parties.
If a party does not request a statement of decision within the required time frame, that party will waive its right to a statement of decision. CRC § 232(g). A waiver will result in the presumption that the trial court made whatever findings were necessary to support its decision.
Objecting to the Proposed Statement of Decision. Be Specific!
Once requested, a proposed statement of decision will be prepared. Although the court can prepare the statement itself, the court will typically request that counsel for the prevailing party prepare it. If and when a statement of decision is issued, it will only address issues of ultimate fact that are relevant and essential to the court’s ruling. It will not make findings on each and every fact. Code of Civil Procedure § 632. Upon reviewing the proposed statement of decision, either party can object to it if it feels the court failed to resolve a material issue of fact. Code of Civil Procedure § 634; CRC § 232(d). Objecting to the statement of decision puts the trial court on notice that the statement fails to resolve certain material issues. Most importantly, the objecting party must specifically identify each issue the court failed to sufficiently resolve. Golden Eagle Ins. Co. v. Foremost Ins. Co. (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1372, 1380.
Why is it so Important to be Specific?
If a party does not specifically object to omissions or ambiguities in the statement of decision, those issues cannot be subsequently raised for the first time on appeal. In re Marriage of Arceneaux, 51 Cal.3d 1130 at p. 1133. This rule prevents a party from raising objections to the statement of decision for the first time on appeal and circumventing the court’s opportunity to cure any defects in the statement of decision prior to appeal. Id.
What If the Court Does Not Amend Its Statement of Decision?
If a court does not amend its statement of decision and enters a final judgment, all is not lost. After a final judgment is entered, a party can raise ambiguities or omissions in the statement of decision in a motion for a new trial or motion to set aside the judgement. Code of Civil Procedure §§ 657, 663. In its ruling on either motion, the court may amend the statement of decision. Code of Civil Procedure §§ 662, 663.
Final Closing Thoughts
The statement of decision process is an intricate one. In experienced counsel who are unaware of its importance can easily fumble and set themselves back. But counsel who understand its true importance – identifying ambiguous findings on material facts – can limit damage on appeal if they are the losing party or protect their successes if they are the prevailing party.
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