Summary judgment is a common part of civil lawsuits, and a topic that comes up frequently in discussing what to expect in litigation. Summary judgment applies to any civil case, but I wanted to do a post on this topic because it frequently comes up in discussions with clients on the course of a lawsuit.
Overview of a Lawsuit
A lawsuit, simply put, is a demand for a court to offer a remedy against another party. This can include a demand for money, possession, or equity (such as a court order demanding a party to do, or not do, something). A party served with a lawsuit has an opportunity to present a defense and convince the court why it should not find for the plaintiff.
After service of a lawsuit and an answer by the defendant, the parties have an opportunity to do discovery, where they can learn about each other’s case. Following discovery, the lawsuit is then ripe for trial. However, either party can seek a summary judgment motion as a means of winning the case without trial.
What is Summary Judgment?
To understand summary judgment, it is helpful to first understand the role of a trial in a civil case. The purpose of a trial is for the jury (or judge, if there is no jury) to decide which “side of the story” to believe. Doing so requires the judge or jury to hear the disputed facts and determine which side is more credible. Once doing so, the jury or judge applies these determined facts to the law, and offers a final judgment in the matter.
Summary judgment is an attempt to get a court judgment without trial. Summary judgment requires a party to prove that (a) there are no genuine issues of material fact and (b) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
For the first element, the moving party must show that the facts are not disputed. For example, in a landlord/tenant eviction for non-payment of rent, a landlord seeking summary judgment would need to show that there is a tenancy agreement between the landlord and tenant, rent is owed, and all of the required court papers were prepared and served. If the tenant disputes any of this, such as alleging that no rent is owed, there would be a dispute of fact, and summary judgment would not be allowed. Instead, a trial would be required.
For the second element, “being entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” the moving party must show that the law provides the remedy they are asking the court for. It is possible to have a case where no facts are disputed, but the law simply does not provide the relief that the claimant is seeking.
Summary Judgment in Practice
Summary judgment is often requested in lawsuits, as it avoids the need for a trial. Rather than putting on a full trial before a judge or jury, summary judgment can allowed a case to be decided solely on the papers, and avoid enormous time and legal fees.
The decision to seek summary judgment, however, must be made carefully. I often seek lawyers attempt a summary judgment motion where the facts are clearly disputed, and the motion merely delays the case and adds unnecessary costs to the case. In some cases, simply bringing the case to trial is the much more logical choice.
On the other hand, summary judgment can be effective at getting your case resolved quicker than trial. An effective summary judgment motion, however, requires that the facts and law be presented in a proper manner to allow for this relief.
The benefits of having an experienced attorney on your side can make all the difference in winning a case on summary judgment. If you find yourself in need of help with a lawsuit, contact me for a consultation.