Robbins: The legal shortcut of summary judgment |

Robbins: The legal shortcut of summary judgment

So what?

In a nutshell, that’s what summary judgment provides.

You’ve laid your cards on the table and they don’t amount to a hill of beans. In legalese, presuming your “cards” are the facts of the case, they don’t amount to enough to support a sufficient claim.

Allow me to explain.

Pick a case, any case. A case is comprised to two essential ingredients: the facts and the law. That’s it. Out of those two ingredients alone, you can cook up any lawsuit that has ever passed the threshold of the halls of justice. It’s sort of like a pound cake. Only drier. Of course facts are nearly limitless and the law is deep and broad. Still, facts and law, law and facts; that’s what makes the legal world go round.

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Summary judgment is a procedural device employed in civil litigation to dispose of a case promptly and expeditiously without the need for trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the material facts of the case and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

“Civil law,” as opposed to “criminal law,” refers to those disputes that do not involve crime or punishment. Civil law is person against person. Mano a mano. It is you against your adversary, not the state who’s coming after you seeking retribution. Win or lose, you don’t go to jail.

The notion of “as a matter of law” is a little slipperier. In essence, “a matter of law” is that which is determined or ascertained through the use of statutes, rules, court decisions, and interpretations of legal principles.

In legal actions, the term “matter of law” is used to define a particular area that is the responsibility of the court. A matter of law is distinguished from matter of fact. All questions concerning the determination of fact are for the jury, although a judge may determine the facts if a jury trial is waived or is not permitted under the law.

As a brief aside, a trial before a judge (rather than a jury) is called a “bench trial” or a “trial to the court.” Some matters cannot be tried before a jury such as divorce proceedings which are always tried to the court.

When the facts are not in dispute, either party may move for summary judgment; it is not unheard of for both parties to seek it. And what the motion says — by the way, a “motion” is a formal way of asking the court to do something — is “so what?” Assuming all the facts are true, the law provides that there just ain’t no there there. There is not enough to warrant taking the matter to trial.

A judge may also determine on his own initiative (what is known in legalese as sua sponte) that summary judgment is appropriate.

Any evidence that would be admissible at trial under the Rules of Evidence may support a motion for summary judgment. Yes, yes, there are rules of evidence. There are also rules of civil procedures and lots of other rules. But those are columns for another day.

When a party moves for summary judgment, the court will often entertain oral argument. What this means is that the lawyers get to come to court and argue their positions. The party arguing for summary judgment will try to persuade the court that summary judgment should be granted and, without the need to take the matter to trial, his or her client should be declared the victor. The other side, will, of course, argue just the opposite. Sometimes though the court may decide the motion on the parties’ briefs and supporting documentation alone.

A “brief” while it may in fact not be very succinct, is the lawyers’ way of advocating a position in writing. It is the filler to the motion, the guts of the apple pie of the motion. It is written argument supported by the facts and the controlling law.

The purpose of summary judgment is to avoid unnecessary trials. It may also simplify a trial, as when “partial” summary judgment dispenses with certain issues or claims. For example, a court might grant partial summary judgment in a personal injury case on the issue of liability. A trial would still be necessary to determine the amount of damages. “Damages” are what is recovered if you win.

Two criteria must be met before summary judgment may properly be granted: (1) there must be no genuine issues of material fact, and (2) the moving party must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

A “genuine issue” implies that certain facts are disputed. Usually a party opposing summary judgment must introduce evidence that contradicts the moving party’s version of the facts. What’s more, the facts in dispute must be central to the case; irrelevant or minor factual disputes will not defeat a motion for summary judgment. Finally, the law as applied to the undisputed facts of the case must mandate judgment for the moving party.

Summary judgment does not mean that a judge decides which side would prevail at trial, nor does the judge determine the credibility of witnesses. Instead, it is used when no factual questions exist for a judge or jury to decide.

Those of us of certain age may recall the “Love Story” tagline that provided, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” To my perhaps twisted legal mind, summary judgment is sort of like that. “Summary judgment means never having to say a word in court.” You get to pop the champagne cork as a matter of law without all the falderal of trial.

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