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Summary Judgment Motions

In any civil case, once all parties have had a chance to conduct some discovery proceedings, the essential facts of the case tend to come to light. By the time the parties are ready for trial, the operative facts and the legal grounds on which the case will be decided are usually known by attorneys on both sides — even if the attorneys may not agree on the merits of the law or the relevance of the facts. Since trials are both expensive and, too often, unpredictable, one or both parties in litigation will often file a motion for summary judgment with the court before the case proceeds to trial.

In a summary judgment motion, a party seeks a decision on one or more issues in the case. If the summary judgment motion concerns all relevant issues in a case, a decision on the motion may make trial unnecessary. Even if the motion only deals with one of the issues, having that issue decided prior to trial can save time and money or improve the party's negotiating position, making pre-trial settlement more likely.

The basic idea behind summary judgment is that if a fact is undisputed — or if the application of the law to an established fact is certain — there is no need for a trial on that issue. The lawyers would not have to argue undisputed facts before a jury, and the court can issue judgment based on the facts set forth in the pleadings.

If the moving party can successfully argue that the undisputed facts and law make it clear that the other party cannot prevail at trial, the court will award summary judgment, thereby ending the lawsuit.

What qualifies as an undisputed fact is not absolute. The non-moving party (the party defending the summary judgment motion) will argue that factual issues exist for a jury to decide, thus meriting a trial. If the court believes that the non-moving party has a chance of prevailing at trial, it must preserve the party's right to have a jury review and evaluate the evidence. Essentially, if a trial could result in the jury ultimately finding in favor of the non-moving party, summary judgment would be inappropriate, and the court will deny the motion.

Generally, in reviewing a summary judgment motion, the court will look at all facts in the light most favorable to the opposing party. In other words, if any point of fact or point of law is inconclusive, the tie goes to the non-filing party. Applying this standard, the judge will then only grant a motion for summary judgment if he or she determines that no reasonable person could decide in favor of the non-moving party.

The burden of proof in a summary judgment motion — that the moving party must show that no reasonable person could rule in favor of the non-moving party, even considering all facts in the light most favorable to them — is much steeper than that carried forward at trial. Once trial begins, the party that bears the burden of proof (usually the plaintiff) must only prove that his or her version of the facts of the case are more likely than not true. Because of this, while summary judgment motions are an important tool in the arsenal of an experienced litigator, they often cannot replace the need for settlement or trial.

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