New Summary Judgment Standard Effective May 1, 2021

Posted in Legal Alerts on January 6, 2021

On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court, on its own motion, issued an amendment to the summary judgment standard, effective May 1, 2021.  The Court adopted the summary judgment standard utilized by federal courts, which has been adopted by a majority of the state courts.

The current standard, set forth in Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, requires that the trial court grant summary judgment where the record shows “that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”  The federal rule is similarly worded to require summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”  Similarities notwithstanding, the Supreme Court’s adoption of the federal standard should have a serious impact on how summary judgment motions are considered by the trial court going forward.

The Court explained the key differences between the two standards as follows.  First, the federal summary judgment is identical to the standard for granting a directed verdict at trial such that “the inquiry under each is the same:  whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.”  Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).  Second, while Florida courts have long held that the moving party must effectively disprove the non-moving party’s case, under the federal standard, the moving party need demonstrate only the absence of evidence in support of the nonmoving party’s case.  See Celtoex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986).  Third, while Florida Courts have held that any competent evidence may create an issue of fact sufficient to withstand a summary judgment motion, the federal standard requires that the trial court actually consider whether the opposing party’s alleged factual dispute is, in fact, genuine and not “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”  Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).  In other words, when the opposing party’s version of the facts is “blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it,” summary judgment is appropriate.  Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

The Florida Supreme Court explained that it believed the federal standard was more appropriate because the state standard rendered summary judgment almost impossible to obtain, thereby frustrating the very purpose of the civil  rules, which is “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.”  Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010.  The summary judgment procedure, the Court opined, should not be disfavored, but rather, should be viewed as a means to satisfy this goal and should therefore be interpreted consistent with it. The Court concluded:

In adopting this amendment, we reaffirm the bedrock principle that summary judgment is not a substitute for the trial of disputed fact issues.  As the Supreme Court itself has emphasized, the summary judgment rule must be implemented ‘with due regard . . . for the rights of persons asserting claims and defenses that are adequately based in fact to have those claims and defenses tried to a jury.’ [citation omitted]  Our goals are simply to improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system, to relieve parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation and to save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution.

The Court is permitting the public the opportunity to comment on its amendment, which will not take effect until May 1, 2021.  The Court’s proposed amendment to Rule 1.510 adds the following sentence:

The summary judgment standard provided for in this rule shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard articulated in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); and Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986).

The Court also invited comments on whether existing Rule 1.510 should be otherwise amended or replaced in its entirety with the text of the federal summary judgment rules.  The Court specifically invited comments from the Florida Bar’s Civil Procedure Rules Committee, which typically drafts proposed rules for the Supreme Court’s approval. 

We believe that the Supreme Court’s amendment to the summary judgment standard will ultimately turn out to be a boon for the defense.  The current state standard, which requires that the moving party effectively disprove the opposing party’s case and which permits the opposing party to avoid a summary judgment by simply raising any factual dispute in response, no matter how minor and no matter how believable, has made it almost impossible to obtain summary judgment from certain jurists.  Whether those same judges will become more amenable to granting such motions remains to be seen, and it may be some time before the judiciary becomes more comfortable granting such motions under the new standard.  However, the Supreme Court’s rationale is clear in encouraging the trial courts to closely examine any alleged factual disputes to determine whether they are truly disputes over significant issues, or simply “metaphysical” disputes that should have no effect on a jury’s verdict in light of the elements of the claims or defenses. 

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding a pending or considered motion for summary judgment in a given case, please feel free to contact the Conroy Simberg attorney(s) on the file to determine whether to amend a pending motion or continue a hearing on the motion if it is set before May 1, 2021.