Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of a lawsuit is when a party files a motion for summary judgment. This is a time when the whole case can come to a close early–or be around for the long haul. It’s also a time to deeply evaluate the strength of the evidence and the legal arguments.
First, it’s important to understand the function of a trial. At a trial, the parties present evidence to fact-finders. A “fact-finder” is a juror or, in the case of a bench trial, a judge. (A bench trial is where the parties forego a jury.) The role of the fact-finder is to decide what happened historically–what the relevant facts are. They decide who did what, and when.
The judge’s duty is to decide what the law is and what evidence gets presented to the fact-finder. You could call the judge the law-finder. His or her duty is often described as that of a gate-keeper: they decide what facts go to the jury and what the law is that governs the dispute. For a bench trial, then, the judge acts as both fact-finder and law-finder, as well as gate-keeper! (Yes, this means the judge decides whether he or she will hear certain evidence.)
With that explanation, the role of a motion for summary judgment becomes more easily understood. First, it’s helpful to understand what a motion is. A motion is a request by a party, usually presented by a carefully researched and written brief, for some type of action from the judge. When a motion is filed, the other party (or parties) may file their own brief to counter the arguments. The judge will evaluate who’s right or not and rule accordingly.
With a motion for summary judgment, the party who files the motion is essentially saying, “Judge, we don’t need a trial. A trial is for situations where we have factual disputes so a fact-finder can determine what happened. But in this case, there are no real factual disputes–we essentially agree on all the core facts. Therefore, we have no need for a trial. Instead, judge, you can rule on the case based on the facts presented and the law. You can apply the law to the facts and rule in our favor without the need of a trial.”
The reason it’s called “summary judgment” is because it’s a brief, truncated attempt to get to a judgment or an outcome. The word “summary” is an adjective means “brief” or “without needing formalities.” The motion is a request for the parties to get straight to a judgment without further ado.
To do it, as explained, a party needs to show that there are no really important facts in dispute. The legal language is that there are “no genuine issues of material fact.” The parties can disagree on immaterial, unimportant, trivial matters (for example, they may disagree on the exact date something happened, but unless the date is critical, the disagreement is probably unimportant) but the party bringing the motion is saying that in essence there are no disputed facts. The party filing for a motion of summary judgement has to present a careful break-down of all the material facts in the case and site to undisputed evidence to do so. If that party fails to do that, the motion will fail.
Once it’s established that no material facts are in dispute, the party filing the motion then has to present a summary of the legal principles that support its side of the case. They then apply the undisputed facts to general legal principles and arrive at a conclusion that they deserve to win. If they’re the plaintiff, that the other party committed a wrong. If they’re the defendant, that they committed no wrong.
Here are the basic components of a motion for summary judgment:
- A list of undisputed material facts, citing to evidence supporting each contention.
- A fully researched and developed summary of the law relating to the dispute.
- An application of the law to the facts.
The other party or parties can oppose the motion and argue why the facts are actually disputed or why the law is different from what the moving party said, or to present other arguments that help defeat the motion.
Any party may file a motion.
Summary judgment is highly technical. They require a lot of work. The parties have to go through every bit of evidence and summarize it simply and clearly. They have to conduct sometimes a significant amount of legal research. They will often go through many drafts. Usually there is a hearing they have to prepare for.
If it’s successful, however, the case is resolved without need of trial. That is the goal of requesting summary judgment.
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