What the Heck IS “Abuse of Discretion,” Anyway?

The “abuse of discretion” standard can be a tricky thing. I’ve heard lawyers ridicule it as a formula for automatic affirmance of the trial court. That is, of course, off the mark. But the breadth of discretion has to be defined for effective appellate review, and even appellate courts sometimes struggle with this standard or mistake it for something it isn’t. (I wrote about the difficulty the Ninth Circuit had in one case last year here, witha related post here and an announcement of my article on the topic here.)

I got to thinking about the complexity of the abuse of discretion standard again when I read a post last week at Legal Writing Prof Blog concerning an oft-quoted definition of the standard from the Fourth Circuit. The post was meant to be amusing, but the quoted definition actually struck me as not too bad. Certainly no worse than the description in Ticconi v. Blue Shield, case no. B190427 (2d Dist. Feb. 27, 2008), in which the court described the abuse of discretion standard in the context of an appeal from an order denying class certification:

“Because trial courts are ideally situated to evaluate the efficiencies and practicalities of permitting group action, they are afforded great discretion in granting or denying certification. The denial of certification to an entire class is an appealable order [citations], but in the absence of other error, a trial court ruling supported by substantial evidence generally will not be disturbed ‘unless (1) improper criteria were used [citation]; or (2) erroneous legal assumptions were made [citation]’ [citation]. Under this standard, an order based upon improper criteria or incorrect assumptions calls for reversal ‘ “even though there may be substantial evidence to support the court’s order.” ’ [Citations.] Accordingly, we must examine the trial court’s reasons for denying class certification. ‘Any valid pertinent reason stated will be sufficient to uphold the order.’ [Citation.]” [Citations.]

It looks to me like there are several standards of review buried in there..

According to this definition, discretion can abused by the court’s employment of an improper legal assumption or improper criteria. That is an improper application of the law. Such questions are usually subject to de novo review. After all, you can’t give a court discretion to apply the wrong law.

Also according to the definition, the court abuses its discretion if it relies on a factual premise for which there is no substantial evidence. So, the substantial evidence standard must be used to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion by relying on a faulty factual premise.

It seems that the true abuse of discretion standard only comes into play after the court of appeal has determined by de novo review that the court employed the proper legal standards and decided on the basis of substantial evidence which of the court’s factual bases are supported. Then, the court can start from that point and determine whether the trial court abused its discretion.

I think Ticconi bears out my thinking, or at least the first stage of it. The court finds that the court analyzed class certification under a mistaken view of the substantive law underlying the claim. Since that mistaken view of the law led it to consider factors that it should not have considered, and to fail to consider facts that it should have, the court remands with instructions to reconsider the class certification motion in light of the correct law and factors for consideration.