What Is a Summary Judgment?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 16, 2018
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The term summary usually means brief, short and rapid. Does that mean that summary judgment papers are short? Don't get your hopes up. A summary judgment order can be a shortcut to terminate a case, but the motion and memorandum are often quite long. That's because, in order to win a summary judgment motion, a party to a lawsuit must identify every material fact in the case and present evidence showing that there is no reasonable dispute about that fact. And that's just the beginning.

Tip

Summary judgment is a court order that decides a legal case without a trial when one party demonstrates that no significant facts are in dispute and that, on the undisputed facts, he is entitled to judgment under the law.

When Is a Summary Judgment Appropriate?

Usually a legal case presents both questions of fact and questions of law. Questions of fact, like whether your neighbor broke your car window, are decided by a jury in a jury trial or by a judge in a bench trial. Questions of law are always determined by the judge.

Questions of fact are the ones that cause trials to take such a long time. Witnesses appear and testify about questions of fact, evidence is produced, sometimes the jury is taken to the scene, and experts may be brought in to give opinions. On the other hand, questions of law are argued in written documents and, sometimes, by oral arguments. They can be resolved quickly.

Summary judgment is a way of getting to the end of the legal matter quickly, but it is only appropriate if no significant facts are at issue. In order to win a summary judgment motion, a party must show that the case does not involve a dispute about any significant fact. Then the judge can simply apply the appropriate law to the undisputed set of facts.

What Is a Summary Judgment Application?

A party hoping for summary judgment must file papers requesting it. The rules for the application are very complex and strictly applied. Although the rules vary among jurisdictions, most require: a notice of motion, a formal motion requesting summary judgment, a statement of undisputed material facts and declaration in support, plus a memorandum in support setting out the law.

Both the notice of motion and the motion itself are standard legal documents telling the other side that a motion for summary judgment has been filed and will be heard at a particular time and place. The statement of undisputed material facts is more difficult. It is a document listing every material fact necessary to the resolution of every issue in the case, plus a summary of all of the evidence showing that the fact is not disputed by the other side. The declaration in support is a sworn statement by the attorney, who attaches an official copy of every piece of evidence mentioned in the statement of undisputed facts. The memorandum discusses the law and how it should be applied to the undisputed facts.

What Happens at a Summary Judgment Hearing?

By the time of a summary judgment hearing, the major work on the motion has been done. Each side has prepared its paperwork and given copies to the other side and to the judge. The party opposing the motion has tried to show that material facts are actually in dispute; the party supporting the motion has filed response papers.

The hearing allows each side to discuss its position. The party making the motion speaks first, the party opposing it speaks next, and then the party making the motion gets the last word. The judge can ask either party questions about the matter. While she can issue a decision at the hearing, the judge often doesn't rule on the spot. Instead, the court usually makes a decision days or weeks later and mails a copy of it to each side.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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