Florida Supreme Court Adopts Federal Summary Judgment Rules and Standards
On May 1, 2021, Florida civil practice and procedure changed substantially with the statewide adoption of a amended summary judgment standard. By Order of the Florida Supreme Court, the text of Florida’s traditional summary judgment rule (Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510) has been essentially replaced by the federal court standard (Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56), with a minor timing revision to align the amended Rule 1.510 with other Florida rules of practice. This amended Rule 1.510 now controls summary judgment motion practice in all new and pending cases in Florida and offers practitioners interesting new opportunities to resolve liability issues and eliminate questionable claims before trial.
a) Previous Standard
Traditional summary judgment motion practice in Florida was incredibly strict. For decades, the moving party had to disprove the other party’s case by demonstrating that there was no dispute whatsoever as to any relevant fact. In opposition, the party opposing the motion only had to demonstrate some slight doubt or issue with any disputed fact to defeat the motion. The unfortunate result was that meritless claims and defenses that could easily be disproven would proceed to trial, on the off chance that a jury could possibly find them credible.
The issue came to a head in Lopez v. Wilsonart, 275 So. 3d 831 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019), where the Fifth District Court of Appeals was forced to reverse the trial court’s summary judgment ruling for the defendants, even though video of the accident totally contradicted the plaintiff’s claims and demonstrated that the defendants were not negligent. The Fifth District Court of Appeals very reluctantly held that the plaintiff’s allegations alone were sufficient to defeat summary judgment under Florida’s strict standard, but submitted a certified question to the Florida Supreme Court as to whether the summary judgment standard could be relaxed in similar cases going forward. However, rather than carve out an exception to Florida’s traditional summary judgment rule, the Florida Supreme Court held that going forward, summary judgment motions should be ruled upon according to the less stringent federal summary judgment standard, which requires the moving party to demonstrate that, based on the facts of the case, no reasonable jury would rule for the nonmoving party. This standard would allow trial courts to dismiss meritless claims at the pretrial stage—such as the plaintiff’s allegations in Lopez that were proven to be false by video evidence—and limit jury trials to genuine issues of fact.
b) Going Forward
On April 29, 2021, and after extensive commentary from Florida attorneys, legal experts, and business leaders, the Florida Supreme Court announced that it would further amend Rule 1.510 by adopting Federal Rule 56 almost in its entirety, and provided courts and practitioners with guidance on how the Court wished them to interpret amended Rule 1.510 going forward:
- Burden of Proof Required: The Court, citing to Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Companies, Inc., 210 F.3d 1099 (9th Cir. 2000), advised that a party moving for summary judgment must “either produce evidence negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or defense or show that the nonmoving party does not have enough evidence of an essential element to carry its ultimate burden of persuasion at trial.” If the moving party can show either of these things, the nonmoving party must produce evidence showing a genuine issue of fact with the moving party’s claim or risk having the claim or defense stricken. This is particularly useful for defense practitioners, who can now move for summary judgment if they can establish that a plaintiff has failed to produce evidence to support an essential element of the plaintiff’s claim, or by producing evidence disproving the plaintiff’s evidence.
- Federal Summary Judgment Case Law Permitted: The Court also advised that Florida courts and practitioners should look to federal court cases interpreting Rule 56 for guidance when interpreting and applying new Rule 1.510. This will allow Florida judges and attorneys to draw upon decades of federal summary judgment case law when briefing and ruling on summary judgment motions, rather than slow the adoption of the new summary judgment standard by forcing Florida courts to start from scratch.
- Trial Courts Must Explain All Rulings: The Court further explained that amended Rule 1.510 requires judges to explain in detail why they granted or denied a party’s summary judgment motion, so that the parties and appellate courts determine what issues, if any, the trial court believes are in dispute for trial. This requirement will help the parties determine what issues may remain for trial, and help establish a body of Florida-specific case law that future judges and attorneys can cite to for guidance in later summary judgment motions.
- Time to File Summary Judgment Motions: Amended Rule 1.510 requires that summary judgment motions must be filed at least forty days before the summary judgment hearing date, and that opposition motions must be filed at least twenty days before the hearing date. This will allow both the moving party and the court sufficient time to review the opposition and prepare for argument at the hearing. Note however that amended Rule 1.510 does not specify that the movant will be permitted to submit reply papers, so movants should be prepared to submit strong initial papers and be prepared to argue against the nonmovant’s papers at the hearing.
- Amended Rule 1.510 for Pending Cases: The Court confirmed that amended Rule 1.510 will apply to all pending cases wherever possible. Parties who have submitted papers under original Rule 1.510 but have yet to argue the motion should be permitted to amend their papers to reflect amended rule’s burden of proof. In cases where the trial court has already denied a summary judgment motion under the original rule, the court should permit the parties to file a renewed summary judgment motion under the amended rule. Finally, any case where a motion for rehearing under the original rule is pending should be decided under the original rule, provided that the parties are permitted to submit a renewed motion under the amended rule.
c) Next Steps
Amended Rule 1.510, with the Florida Supreme Court’s guidance, has the potential to be beneficial to defense practitioners and their clients. At the federal level and in state courts with similar summary judgment rules, summary judgment motions can give plaintiffs strong incentive to resolve cases before trial. A strong summary judgment motion can demonstrate how a plaintiff had failed to establish a claim for trial and encourage settlement to hedge against the risk that the plaintiff’s case will be dismissed. Even a strong opposition to a plaintiff’s summary judgment motion can demonstrate weaknesses in the plaintiff’s case that could be exploited at trial, and encourage settlement to avoid the uncertainty of trial. By contrast, Florida’s traditional summary judgment standard permitted questionable claims to survive summary judgment and go to trial, forcing defendants to settle potentially meritless claims, especially in cases where defense and trial costs may exceed the cost of settlement. Plaintiffs will also benefit from amended Rule 1.510, as it will now be easier for them to obtain summary judgment on certain claims (such as rear-end motor vehicle accidents, where there is a presumption of negligence unless the defendant driver can put forward evidence for a non-negligent explanation for the accident) and to dismiss many affirmative defenses that a defendant has failed to establish.
Now is the perfect time to reevaluate pending cases to determine if there are grounds to move for summary judgment under amended Rule 1.510. While trials are slowly resuming after months of courtroom closures due to coronavirus, there is still an extensive backlog of trial-ready cases, and while the court system is working hard to return to full capacity it will be some time before that happens. A strong summary judgment motion may be just what you need to get your case settled or dismissed while awaiting trial.