Summing Up: The Recent Change to the Florida State Court Rule on Summary Judgement
Litigators anecdotally know that Florida federal court judges more readily enter summary judgments than their state court counterparts, but few can tell you why. [Note: For the non-lawyers among you, a “summary judgment” is a dispositive ruling by a court when no issues or disputes of material facts exist to be determined at trial, and the court can apply the law to those known facts to render a ruling.] With the entry of a summary judgment, most often the case ends. For sure, federal judges, having been appointed for life, and usually possessing above-average legal skills, often can make the hard calls to end a case by summary judgment rather than letting it roll on to trial, but is there more to this disparate treatment between federal and state judges?
The answer, of course, lies in the differences between how the respective courts apply the relevant rules of civil procedure applicable to summary judgments, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 and the state analog, Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510. Until now, the textual language in the two rules, though “materially indistinguishable,” have been applied differently by the two judiciaries. Federal courts apply a more lenient standard, which results in the entry of more summary judgments, by:
- Analogizing a ruling on a motion for summary judgment to a ruling on a motion for a directed verdict, that is, the court determines whether there is “sufficient disagreement” in the evidence to submit the resolution to a jury, or whether the evidence is one-sided enough that a party must prevail as a matter of law. Florida state courts never equated the two rules.
- Not requiring the moving party to submit evidence “negating” an opponent’s claim or defense. See Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1966) (Florida rule essentially requiring the moving party to “prove a negative”). Rather, the movant can make a “showing” by “pointing” to the absence of the opponent’s evidence. The traditional Florida state court rule required the movant to negate the opponent’s claim.
- Applying a more liberal test to what qualifies as a “genuine (triable) issue of material fact.” Florida state courts may find a genuine issue exists—requiring a resolution by trial—when the “slightest doubt” exists. Federal courts, by comparison, need only determine whether a “reasonable jury” could find for the nonmoving party; moreover, the evidence must present more than a “colorable” claim or establish more than “metaphysical doubt.”
See generally, Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986) (together, the “federal summary judgment standard”).
The Florida Supreme Court in a recent Opinion rendered December 31, 2020 (No. SC20-1400), ended the disparate rendering of summary judgment rulings between the Florida federal and state courts by officially adopting the more liberal federal summary judgment standard. The amendment will take effect on May 21, 2021, aligning Florida with 37 other states which have adopted a similar federally consistent rule.
The revised portion of Florida Rule 1.510 now reads:
The judgment sought must be rendered immediately if the pleadings and summary judgment evidence on file show that there is no genuine issue dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. A summary judgment, interlocutory in character, may be rendered on the issue of liability alone although there is a genuine issue as to the amount of damages. 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 significance of this cannot be overstated. Expect litigants to be much more aggressive in filing motions for summary judgment in state court. This will no doubt increase the amount of legal fees spent on pretrial motions, but the result could mean earlier resolutions of cases rather than enduring the interminable wait for a trial date on the ever-crowded court dockets.
Tucker H. Byrd, Esq.