Florida High Court Adopts the Federal Standard for Summary Judgment

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On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court rendered an opinion in In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.1510, No. SC20-1490, aligning Florida’s rules of civil procedure with the supermajority of U.S. states and formally adopting the federal standard for summary judgment motions. The decision came on the heels of another case, Wilsonart, LLC, et al. v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020), in which the Florida Supreme Court reviewed a trial court’s decision to weigh compelling video evidence against a conflicting eyewitness statement and grant summary judgment in the defendant’s favor.

In Wilsonart, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision on appeal, relying on the state standard that the “slightest doubt” as to the potential existence of a genuine issue of material fact may enable the nonmoving party’s claims to survive. Because there had been, technically, conflicting evidence, the court of appeal determined that the trial court’s entry of summary judgment had been inappropriate. The Fifth District Court of Appeal also certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court: whether video footage could conclusively negate a conflicting eyewitness account for the purposes of summary judgment.

The Florida Supreme Court accepted the case but examined it under broader parameters, considering whether Florida’s summary judgment standard was appropriate at all. The outcome in Wilsonart, the supreme court found, evinced “a deeper flaw” in the state’s summary judgment standard—an unreasonably high hurdle to clear for the moving party.

After going through its analysis in Wilsonart, the Florida Supreme Court held that the more relaxed federal standard should replace the state standard. Citing the Celotex Corp. v. Catrett decision from the Supreme Court of the United States, the Florida Supreme Court stated that rather than require the moving party to affirmatively disprove or negate the nonmoving party’s claims, the new standard would simply require the moving party to “‘point[] out to the district court … that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.’” The Florida Supreme Court reasoned that this relaxed standard was more appropriate because it aligned more closely with the purpose behind the rule, as stated in Celotex: “‘One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment rule is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses, and … it should be interpreted in a way that allows it to accomplish this purpose.’” The Florida Supreme Court declined to apply the federal standard in Wilsonart, however, noting that the change must be done prospectively, through a rule amendment.

The Rule Amendment

The very same day, the Florida Supreme Court amended Florida’s summary judgment rule, which is codified at Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, to adopt the standard articulated in Celotex and its progeny. The Florida Supreme Court noted that the two summary judgment rules shared the “same overarching purpose,” which was “‘to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action’,” and that the actual text of the two summary judgment rules was strikingly similar. Nevertheless, Florida courts and federal courts have departed dramatically in their application of these two rules.

Among other things, Florida courts have taken a more expansive view of what constitutes a “genuine issue” of material fact. The Florida Supreme Court noted this point in In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, quoting Berman’s Florida Civil Procedure § 1.510:5 (2020 ed.): “the existence of any competent evidence creating an issue of fact, however credible or incredible, substantial or trivial, stops the inquiry and precludes summary judgment, so long as the ‘slightest doubt’ is raised.’”

By contrast, in Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986), the Supreme Court of the United States described the federal test as whether “‘the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.’” The Florida Supreme Court found that the federal standard was more in line with the overarching goal of having a “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.”

In adopting the federal standard, the Florida Supreme Court reasoned that the standard better comported with the court’s aims to improve the “fairness and efficiency” of Florida’s judicial system, spare parties undue costs associated with “meritless litigation,” and “save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution.”

What Does This All Mean?

This amendment to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 will not go into effect until May 1, 2021. (It is now subject to public comment, and all comments must be filed with the Florida Supreme Court on or before March 2, 2021.) Assuming that the amendment goes into effect as proposed, parties may have a greater chance at succeeding on motions for summary judgment in Florida state courts. Lawyers may also look to federal decisions for guidance as to how record evidence ought to be weighed under the amended rule. That being said, only time will conclusively tell how Florida trial courts will interpret and apply the amended rule.

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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