Understanding Summary Judgment

A motion for summary judgment is filed by a party to a case when they believe that there is no dispute as to any material facts and therefore no requirement of hearing evidence and going through the process of trial to determine disputed facts. Alternatively, it could also be explained as follows: if the facts are such that even if they are considered in the manner most favorable to the non-moving party (i.e., not the party who has moved the court for summary judgment) a reasonable jury would not possibly find in favor of the non-moving party. In layman’s terms, this means that the facts of the case are so one-sided that it can be decided in favor of one party without even going to trial.

Burden of proof:

On a motion for summary judgment, the initial burden of proof is on the party moving for summary judgment. The moving party has to demonstrate an absence of a genuine issue (or dispute) of material facts. Once the moving party has established this, the burden shifts to the non-moving party. The non-moving party must then produce enough evidence to rebut the moving party’s claim and establish that there is a genuine issue of material fact. If the non-moving party does so, then the motion for summary judgment will be denied.

Motions for summary judgment are typically heard prior to the taking of oral testimony or evidence at trial. It is based on admissions made by the parties in their written briefs, evidence provided in affidavits or other authenticated documents and arguments that the factual issues in the briefs are either not genuine or not material to the case.

Why is it important?

The decision in a motion for summary judgment is critical because it amounts to an adjudication of the controversy ‘on its merits’. In simple terms, this means that once summary judgment has been awarded, you cannot litigate the same issue again, unless you are appealing against the grant of summary judgment.

Judges frequently grant partial summary judgment – this happens when they believe there is no genuine issue as to one aspect of the case, but the other aspects ought to be decided at trial. In cases involving multiple parties, courts may also grant summary judgment against one party without granting summary judgment against another.

Choosing to move for summary judgment:

The decision to move for summary judgment must be made carefully. It requires a thorough analysis of the moving party’s claim or defense, and the extent to which evidence can be presented to establish or controvert the existence of an apparent issue of fact and its materiality to the case in question. The lawyers handling the case need to be extremely conversant with the issues involved and the proof that would be required to establish them at court. Lawyers typically make complete use of pretrial discovery devices available before considering a motion for summary judgment. A failed motion for summary judgment could have an adverse effect on the ultimate success of the moving party, because it would betray a lack of knowledge/understanding by counsel.