Most lawsuits 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, and the judge only needs to apply the law to the facts and see who prevails. Summary judgment is the same as a judgment after trial: it is a final judgment that ends the case, and parties can either accept it or appeal it.
Material Facts: Disputed or Undisputed?
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.
Once discovery is over, the case goes to trial, where the jury (or the judge, if the trial is a bench trial) reviews the evidence, including documents and testimony, and decides what the facts of the case are and, based upon the application of the law to the facts, rules in favor of one of the parties.
So what happens when there are no facts to decide? That's where summary judgment comes in.
No Material Facts in Dispute? Summary Judgment is Appropriate
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 make up a cause of action or a defense, 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 based on those undisputed facts.
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 to the suit.
Read More: How to Defeat a Motion for Summary Judgment
What Happens After a Summary Judgment is Granted?
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 who won can ask for an award of costs and sometimes attorney fees from the other party, unless those were already included in the summary judgment. The party who lost 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 under the judgment.
A summary judgment is a ruling by the court without a trial. Once the court enters summary judgment in favor of a party, the case is over, just as it would have been after a trial, and the losing party may either accept the judgment or appeal it.
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.