Summary judgment is a when the court summarily disposes of the case prior to trial. This ruling should only be made if the judge finds that that based on the evidence presented there is no factual dispute and no need for a trial. The standard is whether reasonable minds could differ based on the evidence presented. If evidence is presented for summary judgment, and reasonable minds could not differ as to the outcome, then the case is ripe for immediate decision.
No Need for the Jury When the Case is Ripe for Summary Judgment
It is said that judges make legal rulings and juries make factual findings. Cases go to trial because there exists within the case a dispute as to the facts – what actually happened. The plaintiff has his theory of what happened, and uses his witnesses and other evidence to prove his theory. And the defendant has an alternative theory of what happened, and accordingly, supports such with opposing witnesses. Each side has story to tell. Which one is true? (Or more or less probable?). That question goes to the jury.
The jury decides facts. Whether or not driving 45 mph in the rain on a road with a 55 mph speed limit was reasonable under the circumstances is a factual question. If the jury finds that such conduct was not reasonable, and thus a breach of duty of care, than the jury has found that at least one element of negligence has been satisfied.
When a party moves for summary judgment, they are asserting to the court that, given all the evidence in the case, there can be only one factual conclusion, and following that factual conclusion is a legal conclusion in the moving party’s favor.
Motions for Summary Judgment are most often filed in the following types of cases
1. Debtor-Creditor cases
A motion for summary judgment is probably most often used in actions for breach of contract or collection of a debt. A typical foreclosure case will often involve a motion for summary judgment. In such a case, the bank will assert that no factual dispute exists: the defendant received a loan, signed a note promising to repay the loan, and in the event of default, had already agreed to turn over title to the real estate to satisfy the balance of the loan. Such a plaintiff would attach a copy of the loan documents demonstrating the promise to repay the loan; a copy of the mortgage contract demonstrating a promise to turn over title to the collateral land to satisfy the balance of the loan; and some sort of ledger sheet demonstrating the unpaid balance and lack of payment by the defendant. Based on this evidence, the plaintiff would assert, there can be no disputing the fact that defendant borrowed money for a house, failed to timely make payments, entered a mortgage agreement promising to convey the house in event of default, and as such, the bank should be entitled to immediate judgment granting foreclosure on the house without the necessity of trial.
The only way the Defendant can beat this motion for summary judgment is to assert facts, supported by evidentiary material, that differ from the facts presented. Perhaps the defendant asserts that there was not a default, as the defendant make timely attempts to pay and the payment was refused. This assertion would contradict the Plaintiff’s statement of facts, thus making summary judgment not proper. Or perhaps the defendant asserts that the mortgage agreement is not valid and the defendant never signed it. So long as the defendant presents some form of evidence supporting this claim, the defendant should be able to defeat the motion as the facts of the case would then be in dispute.
2. Personal Injury cases
In personal injury cases, it is typically the defendant who moves for summary judgment. A defendant in a personal injury case might move for summary judgment in whole or in part. For instance, in case involving respondeat superior liability — i.e. an employer’s liability for acts of an employee — the employer-defendant might move for summary judgment on the issue of respondeat superior liability. In such instance, the employer-defendant would allege that, given the undisputed facts of what happened, the employee’s action were not committing within the employee’s “scope of employment” with the employer, and therefore no liability should attach to the employer. The burden would then shift to the plaintiff to demonstrate a factual dispute regarding the employee’s scope of employment. The plaintiff must show that, given the facts available, it could be possible that the employee’s actions, at the time they were committed, could have been within the employee’s scope of employment with the employer-defendant.
3. Federal Court
While I do not have the data in front of me, I strongly suspect that cases in federal court are disposed of prior to trial much more frequently than cases in state court. One reason for this is likely the types of cases brought in federal court, which usually involve some statutory claim, and often have elements that are harder for plaintiffs to meet than the common law claims brought by plaintiffs in state court. Complaints involving employment claims are frequently disposed of on summary judgment. In fact, successful motions for summary judgment keep out many employment discrimination cases from going to jury trial in federal courts.
In the federal courts, summary judgment is governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Oklahoma has a very similar rule on summary judgment, which is found in Section 2056 of Title 12, Oklahoma Statutes, and also in Rule 13 for Rules of the District Courts, which is in the appendix to Oklahoma Statutes.
Summary Judgment motions are something that every personal injury trial lawyer has to deal with on a routine basis, and I certainly get a fair share in my practice.