Sometimes the standard of review is better than you might first think

Clients (and their lawyers) can be disheartened when they conclude that the ruling they want to challenge on appeal is subject to review for abuse of discretion — a standard of review that is indeed daunting. But keep in mind that rulings ordinarily subject to review for abuse of discretion may be subject to the much more appellant-friendly de novo (or independent) standard of review, in which the court of appeal decides the issue without any deference to the trial court.

The defendant-appellant in Children’s Hospital Central California v. Blue Cross of California, case no. F065603 (5th Dist. June 9, 2010) was able to take advantage of this situation. Blue Cross had a contract with the state to provide a managed care plan for Medi-Cal recipients. Plaintiff hospital and Blue Cross had a written rate agreement that lapsed, and did not enter into a new agreement for about ten months. In the interim, the hospital kept providing services and Blue Cross paid the hospital more than $4 million based on government Medi-Cal rates, but the hospital contended that the reasonable value of the services provided was nearly $11 million, and sued to recover the difference.

Blue Cross contended that the trial court improperly limited the evidence of the reasonable value of the services by denying Blue Cross’s discovery motion to compel the production of the hospital’s written agreements with other insurers and granting the hospital’s motion in limine to preclude any evidence of the rates accepted by or paid to Hospital by other payors, the Medi-Cal and Medicare fee for service rates paid by the government, and Hospital’s service specific costs. The hospital contended that reasonable reimbursement rates were governed solely by the six factors set forth in a regulation.

Normally discovery rulings and evidentiary ruling are subject to review for abuse of discretion. Here, however, Blue Cross benefited from a de novo standard, because the basis for the trial court’s rulings — its conclusion that the evidence was irrelevant — is an “analysis of the substantive law governing the case,” making it a legal issue subject to independent review.

The abuse of discretion standard is full of nuance. Don’t let it automatically discourage you from pursuing an appeal. Instead, consider the actual error to be asserted to see if it comes within independent review.