Most law suits involve a checkerboard of legal and factual issues that must be resolved, and this is what makes them so lengthy. The law may be clear, but unless and until the facts are established, it is impossible to say what law applies. Summary judgment is a legal shortcut to get from pleadings to judgment when both parties agree on most or all of the significant facts in the case.
A summary judgment is a ruling by the court on the law to apply to a case, a shortcut procedure available only if the court first finds that no material facts are in dispute.
Just the Facts Ma'am
You may have heard about the staggering length of time it takes for an average court case to be resolved, a length of time measured in years, not months. If you have ever wondered why it takes so long, the answer is that determining the facts is neither quick nor easy.
Each party investigates in the early stages of trial to find evidence and witnesses to support their version of events. Each also conducts "discovery," a fact-finding process to learn about ("discover") evidence the other party has to support their version of events. This alone can take months.
In many trials, a jury has to be selected and seated before trial begins. It will hear all evidence supporting each party's version of the facts and decide which to believe. The jury does not decide questions of law; this is the job of the judge. In court trials where neither party has asked for a jury, the judge hears the evidence and decides the facts, in addition to deciding questions of law.
No Facts in Dispute
Some facts are in dispute in every case, but sometimes the material or significant facts are not. If one party believes that the other side cannot dispute the basic, relevant facts, that party's attorney can put together papers that make up a summary judgment motion. The papers ask the judge to rule that there are no facts in dispute, and that, under the law, that party should get a favorable judgment.
In a summary judgment motion, the party lists all of the material facts, one by one. Next to each fact, the party lists the evidence proving that fact, whether the evidence is someone's testimony or a written document or discovery from the other party. The opposing party has a chance to argue that a fact is disputed by listing evidence that opposes one or more of the material facts. If the court finds that there is no viable evidence suggesting that one of the material facts is untrue, it can rule on the questions of law applicable.
When a judge grants a judgment based on a summary judgment motion, it is termed a "summary judgment" because it summarily disposes of the legal issues without a hearing on the facts. A summary judgment disposes of the entire case. It is a final ruling in the case, and no further testimony or evidence is heard.
The parties can bring certain motions after any judgment, including a summary judgment. The party for whom judgment is entered can ask for an award of costs and sometimes attorney fees from the other party. The party against whom judgment is entered can ask the court to reconsider the ruling, to strike the ruling or to grant a new trial. That party can also appeal the summary judgment to a higher court for review. Strict time limits apply to appeals procedures, and once the time for appeal is past, the judgment is final. The winning party can then take steps to enforce the judgment. For example, if it is a money judgment, the winning party can try to collect the money owing.