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What is a Summary Judgment Hearing?

Summary Judgment Hearings in Florida

 Quick Topic Summary:

What Is a Summary Judgment?

Under Rule 1.510 of Florida Rules of Civil Procedure,  a motion for summary judgment is filed pretrial by any party who believes that there are no disputes in the material facts and that judgment must be entered it that party’s favor, or on a particular issue, as a matter of law. More simply put, that party believes that the relevant evidence revealed during discovery proves that there is no possible need for a trial in full or in part. There must be NO conflicts in the material facts, including no conflicts in the reasonable interpretations or inferences that can be derived from the undisputed facts.  A party filing a motion for summary judgment bears the heavy burden of proving that there is no possible way that the adverse party can prevail on a claim. Regardless of who has the burden of proof at trial, since summary judgment is a pre-trial effort to remove one or more claims or defenses from the trial, the burden is on the moving party to negate the possibility of the existence or even the possible existence of a material fact. If there is any doubt, a judge should deny the motion.

As stated,  a motion for summary judgment does not have to seek the dismissal of an entire claim or defense.  It can simply address one of many issues in a case or one of many claims or defenses. For example, if a plaintiff is claiming future medical expenses, but the pretrial discovery undisputedly proves that there will be no future medical expenses incurred by an accident victim, then a defendant may move for partial summary judgment on the claim of the plaintiff’s claim seeking future medical expenses. This also saves time and resources; although a trial will still occur, the issues are narrowed.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 56, states that in order to be successful in a summary judgment motion, the moving party must prove that 1) there is no genuine dispute of any material fact of the case, and 2) the movant is entitled to the judgment as a matter of law. The moving party holds the burden of proving that there is no dispute in the material facts of the case, nor can those facts be interpreted as any possible issue of material fact. Often times a party who has a case entirely thrown out after a summary judgment motion will appeal and often times those appeals are successful. When the appeal is successful, the appellate court will say that the evidence and inferences from the evidence were not so clear-cut that the judge should have entered a summary judgment.

The motion for summary judgment will be broken down into two parts 1) the motion itself, where the movant requests the court’s favor and 2) the memorandum of law which explains why the court should rule in favor of the movant. The motion must be very specific and identify the evidence (that it must file with the court) explaining why that party should be granted a summary judgment.

What Happens At A Motion For Summary Judgment Hearing?

The hearing, if the judge allows one ( in some federal courts, rulings are often submitted on the submissions only) will take place after the motion and response have been filed and reviewed by the judge. The moving party, often a defendant seeking to have the plaintiff’s lawsuit dismissed in its entirety, argues that there are no conflicts in any of the material facts or conflicts in the inferences from the facts and that a summary judgment should be entered by the court.  However, the party moving for summary judgment is strictly limited to arguing what it wrote in its motion, as a motion for summary judgment on an entire claim is, in essence, a substitute for trial. Therefore, the moving party must be very explicit in its motion and memorandum exactly what that party plans to argue to the court.

At the hearing, the moving party should detail all of the undisputed facts and explain why those undisputed facts entitled it to judgment as a matter of law. The opposing party, who has to file any evidence upon it will rely at least two days prior to the hearing, will either attempt to show the judge that there are disputes in the material facts which can only be decided at trial or that even if there are undisputed facts, there are different reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts. No witnesses are called to testify at the hearing. The motion is based on depositions, affidavits and other discovery undertaken in the case. Then, the judge, after acquiring all of the facts and asking any questions he or she might have, will make a decision on whether or not to grant the motion or deny it. Often, the judge will make a decision the day of the hearing, but sometimes the judge will take the matter under advisement.

See: Foreclosure Summary Judgment Hearings

How To Defeat A Summary Judgment Motion?

The most important aspect in defeating a summary judgment motion is to cast doubt on the conclusiveness of the facts, either by showing that there are disputes in the material facts (using affidavits) or that there are different inferences to be made from those facts. If there is any issue of material fact, even the slightest doubt that there is, the motion for summary judgment should not be granted. Usually, the opposing side will file a response to the motion to make it known that they are going to dispute this motion.

It is important to note that motions for summary judgment are usually denied.

When Is A Motion For Summary Judgment Filed?

A party will move for summary judgment to showcase to the court the lack of genuine issue of material fact.

The moving party holds the burden of proving that there is no dispute in the material facts, or their interpretation, of the case. A motion for summary judgment is filed when the moving party is confident that they can prove that there is no genuine dispute of any material fact of the case and that the movant is entitled to the judgment as a matter of law. The moving party needs to make sure they have gathered all of the material facts and be sure to weigh the protentional interpretations of those material facts.

Basically, a motion for summary judgment is filed when one side believes that the opposing side has no case or no grounds for part of the case. The motion must state exactly the grounds for which the party is making the motion and the law. The motion must be served at least 20 days before the hearing will be held.

What Happens If The Summary Judgment Is Granted?

If the motion for summary judgment is granted, the issue upon which the motion is brought, whether it be an entire claim, an entire defense, or a particular issue, will be thrown out. Meaning, a jury, will not determine that issue at trial. The determination of that issue, or perhaps the entire case, will end there unless a party files for an appeal.

If summary judgment is denied related to the entire case, which it usually is, then the next step will usually be a trial.

Is a Summary Judgment Appealable?

In some instances, a summary judgment is appealable. (Note: There are time limits for filing an appeal of a summary judgment.) 

A motion for reconsideration can also be filed by the party who loses the hearing. However, be careful because a motion for reconsideration does not toll the time limit to file a notice of appeal.

Can You File Summary Judgment Before Discovery?

Usually, no, you cannot file summary judgment before discovery. Summary judgment usually will not be granted until the material facts of the case have been gathered and presented for the court. This is to prove that there is no genuine issue and that there are not merely missing pieces of evidence for the justification of the case.

Summary judgment will not be granted if it is not clear that all of the evidence has been gathered. Remember, summary judgment will only be granted if there is no dispute in the material fact or how the material facts can be interpreted, meaning all of the material facts would have to have been gathered.

Can You File Multiple Summary Judgment Motions?

Yes, there are different ways that you could file multiple summary judgment motions. You can submit a motion for summary judgment for part, instead of all, of a case in which you would file multiple summary judgment motions for each particular issue. Or if you have previously filed a motion for summary judgment and it was not granted, you can submit for an appeal if you would like to try for a rehearing or new trial.

Here’s an example of a case where parties filed multiple motions for summary judgments: Florida Dept. of Transp. v. Juliano, 801 So. 2d 101 (Fla. 2001).

Summary Judgment in Negligence Cases

Summary judgment is usually only granted by the courts in negligence cases in extraordinary circumstances. Negligence is generally an issue that is determined by a jury or judge, and if there is any doubt on the question of negligence, the judge will usually err on the side of caution by rejecting the motion for summary judgment and moving forward with a jury trial.

Here are some negligence related questions and/or issues which are often inappropriate for determination at a summary judgment hearing:

  • did the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff
  • was the person causing the injury an agent or employee of the defendant
  • did the defendant know or should have known about the dangerous condition that caused the injury
  • was the employee who caused the injury acting within the scope of his or her employment or in furtherance of the employer’s business interests at the time of the injury
  • did the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies to the situation (meaning that the very nature of the accident implies negligence)
  • was the injury or the occurrence causing it reasonably foreseeable
  • did the defendant act with reasonable care under the circumstances
  • was there any negligence on the part of the defendant
  • was the injury unavoidable
  • were there intervening events sufficient to supersede the defendant’s negligence

For an example of a case dealing with the complicated relationship between negligence and summary judgment, see Piedra v. City of North Bay Village, 193 So. 3d 48 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016), where several fact questions precluded summary judgment.

Related (From Our Blog): How To Survive A Slip and Fall Summary Judgment Hearing

 

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The lawyers at Sackrin & Tolchinsky, P.A. have over 60 years of combined experience in dealing with summary judgment hearings. Alan Sackrin is a Board Certified Civil Trial Lawyer and an expert in civil procedure. Please feel free to contact us today for a free consultation.

Also see: What are interrogatories?

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Notice: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Florida law is always changing. Therefore, we strongly recommend talking with an experienced Florida lawyer to learn your rights.