Amendment To Florida Rules Increases Likelihood Of Summary Judgment In State Court

Jackson Lewis P.C.
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The Florida Supreme Court recently amended Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 (Summary Judgment), adopting the less restrictive federal summary judgment standard as articulated by the United States Supreme Court 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).  Summary judgement is the procedural mechanism whereby lawsuits may be disposed of prior to a trial if the judge determines that, based on the uncontested material facts in the case, there is no way for the nonmoving party to win.  The amended Rule 1.510 will apply to any summary judgment motion decided on, or after, May 1, 2021, including in pending cases.  See In re Amends. to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, No. SC20-1490, 309 So. 3d 192 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020).

In its decision to amend Rule 1.510, the Florida Supreme Court noted key distinctions between the existing federal and Florida jurisprudence with regard to summary judgment motions. First, federal courts have long applied a far narrower definition to the term “genuine issue of material fact.” When determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, federal courts ask whether “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”  In re Amends. to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 309 So. 3d at 193 (internal quotations omitted).  Florida courts, on the other hand, have historically denied summary judgment where any competent evidence creates an issue of fact, no matter how “credible or incredible, substantial or trivial,” so long as “the slightest doubt is raised.”  Id.  As a result, the vast majority of Florida state court summary judgment motions are denied, and Florida litigants are routinely forced to spend significant time and resources litigating and trying incredibly weak cases (or entering into large settlements).  This chain of events is far less common under the federal summary judgment standard, which attempts to nip meritless lawsuits in the bud. Taking all of this into account, the Florida Supreme Court explained that its objectives in adopting the federal standard are “to improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system, to relieve parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation, and to save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution.”  Id. at 194.

For many state court practitioners and their clients, the new Florida standard is a positive change. From an employment litigation defense perspective, the change will afford a greater opportunity to dispose of certain cases early on and will reduce the pressure on defendants to pay large settlements to avoid the costs of defending weak cases through trial.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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