Back to (Federal) Reality- Tennessee Supreme Court Ruling Modifies Summary Judgment Standard

Butler Snow LLP

Since 2008, state courts in Tennessee have decided motions for summary judgment according to the ruling laid out by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co. Unlike the summary judgment standard in federal court, a party seeking summary judgment under the Hannan standard had to either (1) affirmatively negate an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim; or (2) show that the nonmoving party cannot prove an essential element of the claim at trial. The Hannan standard was an extension of prior Supreme Court precedent rather than a reasoned comparison between the summary judgment standard found in Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and its federal counterpart.

The dissent in Hannan warned at the time that the standard articulated by the majority was contrary to the fact that Tennessee’s Rule 56 was essentially identical to Federal Rule 56 as well as the previous Tennessee precedent that had interpreted Tennessee’s rule in a way that mirrored the federal summary judgment standard. In Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis, MPLLC, the Tennessee Supreme Court finally re-considered, and ultimately overturned, the Hannan decision.

Based on its reasoning that the standard articulated in Hannan had functioned in practice to frustrate the purposes for which summary judgment was intended – a rapid and inexpensive means of resolving issues and cases about which there is no genuine issue regarding material facts – the Court in Rye officially brought Tennessee summary judgment law in line with its federal counterpart. Specifically, the Court said the Hannan standard was incompatible with the history and text of Tennessee Rule 56. Rather than placing the burden on the moving party essentially to prove that the nonmoving party will never be able to prove his or her case at trial, the new standard, like its federal counterpart, now requires that plaintiffs do more than merely rest upon allegations in the pleading and instead set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s adoption of the federal standard will allows courts to efficiently decide those cases that do not actually require the consideration of factual disputes, bringing Tennessee in line with the longstanding recognition by both commentators and numerous other jurisdictions that where there is no real factual dispute, there is no need for a trial by jury. The decision is particularly interesting because of the Court’s recognition that while overruling prior precedent is a power that should be used sparingly, errors that become “plain and palpable” over time must also be corrected. Indeed, the Court even said that it had “a special duty” to correct erroneous rules that it had created and nurtured over time. The Rye decision is very important for litigants in Tennessee, and it will be remembered not only as a key mechanism for the expeditious and fair disposition of Tennessee cases, but also as a reminder to future Courts that certain rules of law should not be allowed to stand when they prove to be unworkable over time.

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