General Rule: If two or more California appellate districts have conflicting rulings, a trial court can and must choose whichever ruling it wants.
If you are conducting legal research on an issue for a superior court trial level case, and you find two contrary appellate decisions, which one do you use, and which one does the trial court have to use?
California has a three tiered court system: (1) Superior/Trial Courts; (2) Appellate Courts; (3) California Supreme Court.
If two different California appellate districts have conflicting rulings, a trial court can choose whichever appeal ruling it wants to use. This is different than the federal court system, which utilizes a district-by-district approach.
Thus, in California, if a Second District and Third District have conflicting appellate rulings on the same issue, the trial court within the Second District, can choose either the Second District appeal ruling or the Third District appeal ruling.
Thus, a Second District appellate case is binding on all courts in the state of California unless another district has a contrary ruling. If there is an appellate court conflict, then the trial court must choose whatever ruling is better in its opinion. But see “Note 1” below.
But the trial court cannot disregard both appellate cases. Even if the trial judge believes that both of the appellate cases are wrongly decided, he or she is bound to choose one of the decisions and follow it.
If there is an appeal of a new case from a trial level decision, the appellate court in that new case can choose either an earlier appellate court case holding, or it can create or use new rule. But see “Note 5” below.
When citing a case that conflicts with another case, you may use the case that you believe most helps your case. But, remember, sometimes older cases have been overruled, criticized, modified, narrowed, or contrasted by newer appellate cases or statutory legislative laws. In other words, sometimes a rule or holding cited in a case may no longer be valid or good law. Part of legal research protocol is to research whether the rule or ruling in a particular appellate case is still good law. That process is commonly called: to “Shepardize” the case.
Frequently, the highest state court, the California Supreme Court, will eventually hear and decide which of the conflicting appellate rulings is best (or develop a different ruling than the appellate courts). Whatever the case, the decision California Supreme Court takes precedence over the contrary appellate decision(s).
In short, lower level courts must follow precedent of higher level courts. Generally, appellate courts do not have to follow precedent of other appellate courts.
Note 1: As a practical matter, “…a superior court ordinarily will follow an appellate opinion emanating from its own district even though it is not bound to do so.” McCallum v. McCallum (1987) 190 Cal. App. 3d 308, 315. Apple Valley Unified School Dist. V. Vavrinek, Trine, Day & Co., LLP (2002) 98 Cal.App 4th 934, 947.
Note 2: State courts applying federal law are bound by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. But state courts are not bound by lower federal court decisions, however, such rulings are entitled to “substantial deference.” Federal court decisions applying state law do not bind state courts.
Note 3: Only “published” decisions are given precedential effect [California Rules of Court, Rule 8.1115(a)].
Note 4: The entire content of an appellate decision is not binding. Only the reason for the ruling on a point of law must be followed as precedent per stare decisis, even a footnote [Gogri v Jack in the Box Inc. (2008) 166 Cal.App. 4th 255, 272; Mercury Interactive Corp. v. Klein (2007) 158 Cal.App. 4th 60, 77]. But parts of the decision that were not necessary to reach that decision, i.e., dicta, are not binding [Mattco Forge, Inc. v. Arthur Young & Co. (1997) 52 Cal.App. 4th 820, 850], but dictum from the California Supreme Court should be followed if thorough analysis and compelling logic were utilized [State of Calif. v. Superior Ct. (Underwriters at Lloyd's of London) (2000) 78 Cal.App. 4th 1019, 1029, fn. 13].
Note 5: For appellate districts that do not have appellate divisions within the district, there must be a "compelling reason" to overrule a decision of another panel of that same district. [Opsal v. United Services Auto. Ass'n (1991) 2 Cal.App. 4th 1197, 1203-1204].
Note 6: Some cases that discuss the above “stare decisis” topics:
Lawrence Tractor Co. v. Carlisle Ins. Co. (1988) 202 Cal. App. 3d 949, 954; Mehr v. Superior Court (1983) 139 Cal. App. 3d 1044, 1049 n.3 [Supreme Court decisions bind all lower courts].
Cuccia v. Superior Court (2007) 153 Cal. App. 4th 347, 353-54 [Trial court must follow “published” appellate court decision].
Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal. 2d 450, 455-456 [Although divided into divisions, the appellate courts are, in reality, one court of appeal. Therefore, a trial court must pick between conflicting appellate decisions].
McCallum v. McCallum (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 308, 315 n.4.
Marriage of Shaban (2001) 88 Cal. App. 4th 398, 409 [Courts of appeal are not bound by other or the same courts of appeal].
Elliott v. Albright (1989) 209 Cal. App. 3d 1028, 1034 [The United States Supreme Court binds all state courts regarding federal law issues].
Yee v. City of Escondido (1990) 224 Cal. App. 3d 1349, 1351 [Federal appellate courts do not bind state courts regarding federal law issues, but are entitled to ”substantial deference”].
Choate v. County of Orange (2000) 86 Cal. App. 4th 312, 327-28 [Federal courts do not bind state courts regarding state law issues].WARNING / DISCLAIMER: This article is a highly simplified explanation of conflicting case ruling law. There are exceptions, variations, and nuances and further explanations not covered in this article. Laws and interpretations of laws frequently change. This article is not legal advice, but educational only. No guarantees are made or warranted regarding the accuracy of the information contained herein. For legal advice regarding the specific issues of your case and/or research, consult with or retain an experienced, knowledgeable attorney at law.