Summary judgment law has undergone dramatic changes over the past decades in both federal and state courts. Summary Judgment was once looked upon as an extreme and extraordinary remedy that was rarely granted and often reversed on appeal. Of course, this is not the case today. Courts have reconstructed summary judgment and today, the motion for summary judgment is a key case management tool. “Standards of review” provide the strictness or intensity with which a court evaluates a particular pleading. Though at first glance, a discussion of standards of review might appear to be of little consequence, a thoughtful consideration and practical understanding of the standards of review are key and will help a practicing attorney focus their motion where it counts.
The Standards – Materiality and Genuineness
Summary judgment is governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Generally, summary judgment may be issued on all claims or certain claims of the lawsuit. Issuance of summary judgment is primarily based on the following two factors:
- There are no genuine issues of material fact which requires a trial to resolve, and
- The movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Shaping the Modern Standard
While the standards have remained unchanged, summary judgment law has changed radically as a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the following three seminal cases: Matsushita Electronic Industries Company v. Zenith Radio Corporation, Celotex Corporation v. Catrett and Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.
The first case, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp, was an antitrust claim brought by American television manufacturers against Japanese television manufacturers. This case held that in determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. The Supreme Court remanded the case for a determination of whether there was sufficient, unambiguous evidence that the defendants had conspired irrationally.In the absence of such evidence, the defendants were entitled to have summary judgment reinstated. In short, for a fact to be taken as material, it must have the ability to affect the outcome of the suit given applicable law.
Three months after deciding Matsushita, the Supreme Court issued its next two decisions: Celotex Corp. v. Catrett and Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc, on the same day. In Celotex, a products liability action involving asbestos exposure, it was held that a movant may meet its burden of production by pointing out the inadequacy of the nonmovant’s evidence. Now this change in summary judgment law paved the way for a new and more lenient burden for movants that do not bear the burden of persuasion at trial. The law was reiterated in Anderson, where it was held that in order for an issue to be genuine, there must be a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party.It described the standard of review as “whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented.” Thus, a mere scintilla of evidence in support of plaintiff’s case is insufficient; the evidence must be such that the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Since Anderson, a dispute will not be considered genuine unless a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non moving party based upon the evidence viewed 1) in the light most favorable to the non moving party, and 2) through the prism of the standard of proof that will apply at trial.
In sum, the key components in a federal motion for summary judgment are materiality and genuineness. The three United States Supreme Court decisions in 1986 have clarified the parties’ respective burdens on a summary judgment motion. When the burden of proof on an issue at trial is on the opposing party, the movant may meet its burden of production by pointing out that the record lacks sufficient evidence for plaintiff to make out its case. Once the movant has met its burden, the opposing party must identify specific, admissible facts in the record or in its affidavits which support its allegations.