Friday, July 20, 2012

Ohio Supreme Court clarifies declaratory judgment standard of review

Last Wednesday Ohio's supreme court held "that an appellate court reviewing a declaratory judgment matter should apply a deferential 'abuse of discretion' standard in reviewing the trial court's determination of whether the case is appropriate for declaratory judgment, but should apply a non-deferential 'de novo' standard in reviewing the trial court's determinations of legal issues in the case.

Writing for the session Justice Paul E. Pfeifer explained that, "while R.C. Chapter 2721 authorizes Ohio's common pleas courts to issue declaratory judgments, it limits that authority to cases in which there is an actual, justiciable dispute between the parties, and '(I)n keeping with the long-standing tradition that a court does not render advisory opinions, (the laws) allow the filing of a declaratory judgment only to decide 'an actual controversy, the resolution of which will confer certain rights or status upon the litigants.' ... Not every conceivable controversy is an actual one. As the First District aptly noted (in League for Preservation of Civil Rights v. Cincinnati, 1940), in order for a justiciable question to exist,'[t]he danger or dilemma of the plaintiff must be present, not contingent on the happening of hypothetical future events ... and the threat to his position must be actual and genuine and not merely possible or remote.'"

"While the syllabus of the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Mid-American Fire & Causalty v. Heasley held that '(d)ismissal of a declaratory judgment action is reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard,' Justice Pfeifer noted that the only issue before the court in Mid-American was whether the dispute between the parties met the threshold test of presenting a justiciable question.

"... some courts have interpreted Mid-American as establishing an abuse-of-discretion standard to all aspects of a declaratory judgment action. ... Today, we reiterate that the abuse-of-discretion standard applies to the review of a trial court's holding regarding justiciability; once a trial court determines that a matter is appropriate for declaratory judgment, its holdings regarding questions of law are reviewed on a de novo basis."

The case here was Arnott v. Arnott, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-3208.

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