The Third Circuit is going to hear argument in my appeal. Does that mean I’m going to win?

I’ve heard it said that “The Third Circuit will not reverse without oral argument” and that “Getting oral argument means you’re likely to win.” Turns out neither statement is true. Appeals in which the court hears argument are more likely than others to end with some modification to the judgment being reviewed. The probability of winning the appeal, however, is not anywhere near 100%.

Using appeals from district court judgments or orders in civil and criminal cases and appeals from administrative agency decisions, I created three categories of appeals that the Third Circuit disposed of in FY 2013: (1) appeals submitted under Local Rule 27.4 for “possible summary action”; (2) appeals submitted under Local Rule 34.1(a) (briefed but not argued); and (3) argued appeals. Then I computed the percentage affirmed or dismissed for each group:

Rule 27.4:                        95.64%               (344 cases)
Rule 34.1(a):                    92.11%               (1,001 cases)
Argued:                            57.14%               (301 cases).

The court does not hear argument in Rule 27.4 or Rule 34.1(a) cases. And yet, some appeals submitted under those rules are reversed or vacated, either in whole or in part. So the Third Circuit does reverse or vacate without oral argument (albeit not often).

The percentage affirmed or dismissed is quite a bit lower for argued cases than for other cases – no doubt the persons uttering the statements above had a sense of that. But the majority of argued cases still end with the judgment or order being affirmed or the appeal being dismissed (often on jurisdictional grounds).

The same pattern emerges looking appeals disposed of in FY 2012:

Rule 27.4:                       97.35%                  (302 cases)
Rule 34.1(a):                   91.32%                  (1,083 cases)
Argued:                           61.00%                  (359 cases).

What can you take away from the above? For one thing, if your appeal makes it through to the point that you argue before the Third Circuit, you can revise your initial estimate of your probability of success based on the patterns reflected above. To an appellant, things might look more favorable; to an appellee not so much. Another takeaway is that the majority of argued cases still end with the judgment under review left intact.

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