What is "Abuse of Discretion" Anyway?

"Abuse of discretion" is a standard by which appellate courts decide whether a trial court has made a mistake in deciding a case. In short, a trial court abuses its discretion when it makes an arbitrary or unreasonable decision. The abuse of discretion standard is common in family law cases because so many issues are committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.

Let's illustrate the abuse of discretion standard by showing how it adds an extra layer of analysis to the appeal of an ordinary civil case.

Suppose Bob rearends his truck into Sue's car. Sue sues Bob for wrecking her car and because she broke her leg in the accident. The case goes to trial. Sue wins because the jury says Bob was negligent when he ran into Sue and caused her to break her leg. The jury awards Sue money damages for her medical bills plus pain and suffering.

Bob can win issues on appeal in one of two ways. First, if he can convince the court of appeals that the evidence against him was legally insufficient, then the court of appeals will reverse the trial court's judgment and dismiss the case. Legally insufficient evidence is the equivalent of no evidence at all. Bob would have to prove that Sue did not introduce any evidence on a critical element in her lawsuit. For example, if Sue did not introduce any evidence of how much her medical bills were, there would be legally insufficient evidence to support that part of the judgment.

The other way Bob can win is to convince the court of appeals that the evidence against him was factually insufficient. If the court of appeals agrees, then it will reverse the case but remand it for a new trial. Factually insufficient evidence means that there is some evidence to support an element of a lawsuit, but not enough to conclude that the element is more likely than not proved. This could occur if Sue just wrote down the amounts of her medical bills on a piece of paper and introduced that into evidence instead of introducing her actual medical bills.

Now let's add in the abuse of discretion standard. Suppose Bob and Sue got married instead of in a car wreck, but they later divorced. At trial, the trial judge awarded 75% of the community estate to Sue. Bob is outraged because he believes the division should have been 50-50. Bob appeals.

Property division on divorce is reviewed by the abuse of discretion standard. The first question the court of appeals asks is whether there was legally sufficient evidence before the trial court to prove the extent of the community property and what it was worth. If so, the court of appeals next asks whether the evidence was factually sufficient as to the contents and value of the community estate. If so, the court of appeals then asks whether the trial court abused its discretion when it divided the community estate the way it did. If the court of appeals believes the trial court abused its discretion, the court of appeals reverses the case and remands it back to the trial court to redivide the community estate.

Bob tries to convince the court of appeals that the evidence about the community estate was legally or factually sufficient, but the court of appeals does not agree. To win on his appeal, Bob must persuade the court of appeals that the trial court abused its discretion. In other words, in light of the evidence before the trial court, was the judge's decision to award 75% of the community estate to Sue arbitrary or unreasonable? If so, the court of appeals remands the case for redivision. If not, the court of appeals affirms the trial court's division of property.

A divorce court may consider many, many factors when it decides how to divide the community estate between a couple upon divorce. According to the Texas Supreme Court, some of the factors are

the spouses' capacities and abilities, benefits which the party not at fault would have derived from continuation of the marriage, business opportunities, education, relative physical conditions, relative financial condition and obligations, disparity of ages, size of separate estates, and the nature of the property. We believe that the consideration of such factors by the trial court is proper in making a "just and right" division of the property. Likewise, the consideration of a disparity in earning capacities or of incomes is proper and need not be limited by "necessitous" circumstances.

Murff v. Murff, 615 S.W.2d 696, 699 (Tex. 1981) (citation omitted). These are the things divorce lawyers argue about when they try to settle a case or are at trial.

Attorney's Fees Award an Abuse of Discretion

In an unusual ruling, the Texas Supreme Court reversed an award of $47,178.50 in attorney's fees against a grandmother who unsuccessfully sought custody of her granddaughter.  In In re: Moore, the Court held that although the grandmother ultimately had been unsuccessful in gaining custody of her granddaughter, she had "at all times subjected herself and [the child] to the jurisdiction of the trial courts, sought their decisions, and followed their rulings."

Shortly after the child's birth in December 2004, the grandmother petitioned the district court for custody of her grandchild.  The trial court ordered that the grandmother have temporary custody.  In May 2005, the child's mother asked the court of appeals to order the grandmother's suit dismissed because the grandmother had no standing to bring the suit under any provision of the Texas Family Code.  The court of appeals granted the mother's request in June 2005, and the suit was dismissed.

But one of the bases for standing is that a person has had "actual care, control, and possession of the child for at least six months."  More than six months had passed since the grandmother obtained temporary custody of her grandchild in December 2004, so the grandmother filed a new petition for custody in which she set out the new basis for standing.

Again the child's mother asked the court of appeals to order the lawsuit dismissed.  The court of appeals ordered dismissal and that the grandmother pay the mother's attorney's fees as a sanction because of the grandmother's "intransigence and disregard for the previous judgment of this Court."

The Texas Supreme Court disagreed with that ruling.  The Court noted that the second petition for custody was based on a different ground for standing than the first petition so that the grandmother had not disregarded the court of appeals judgment by filing the second petition.  The Texas Supreme Court held that the court of appeals had abused its discretion when it ordered payment of these attorney's fees.  It ordered the court of appeals to vacate that award.