On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court announced the amendment of Florida’s summary judgment standard, adopting the more relaxed federal summary judgment standard, in an effort to improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system and relieve parties from the burdens of meritless litigation.
Summary judgment is the procedural device through which parties may avoid an unnecessary trial by proving to the court that there are no issues of fact to be decided by a jury, only legal issues that can be resolved by the court. Florida’s adoption of the less-restrictive federal standard will likely make it easier for litigants to prevail on summary judgment and thereby reduce the need for burdensome and expensive trials.
Although both the current Florida and federal standards require summary judgment where there is no genuine dispute as to any material facts, the Court notes three key differences between the two standards:
First, Florida’s prior standard for determining whether there is a genuine dispute on a given issue was more stringent than the federal standard. While Florida courts required the moving party to conclusively negate the non-movant’s claim, the federal standard only requires that the moving party show the court that there is an absence of evidence supporting the non-movant’s case.
Second, Florida courts’ interpretation of what constitutes a genuine issue of material fact has been considerably more expansive than the federal interpretation. While the existence of any evidence on a given point could create a genuine issue of fact in Florida, under the federal standard there must be more than a scintilla of evidence, and evidence that is merely colorable will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.
Third, Florida courts have historically declined to recognize the similarity between a motion for summary judgment and a motion for directed verdict. In adopting the federal standard, the Florida Supreme Court’s majority agreed with the Supreme Court of the United States’ prior determination that the inquiry under both procedural devices is identical, with the sole difference being that summary judgment occurs before trial and directed verdict occurs during trial.
Justice Labarga’s Dissent:
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Labarga emphasized that Florida’s prior standard did not preclude summary judgment based on the dispute of any fact, rather on the dispute of a genuine issue of material fact. Further, in Justice Labarga’s opinion, Florida’s adoption of the federal standard will inevitably infringe upon the role of the jury in deciding disputes in civil lawsuits.
Particular Significance for Employers
This development is significant to employers because the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA) closely parallels federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination. By foregoing federal claims and filing their FCRA claim in state court, plaintiffs could ensure application of the stricter Florida summary judgment standard (except in cases where the defendant could remove the case to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction). Applying the federal summary judgment standard in state court will tend to create greater consistency between federal and state decisions in Florida, and should improve the prospect for entry of summary judgment in these cases. On the other hand, plaintiffs may be more inclined to bring claims under both state and federal law, which, in some cases, can make additional legal theories and additional remedies available.
Opportunity for Comments:
The new rule will take effect on May 1, 2021 to allow an opportunity for public comments on this amendment and on the issue of whether the effective implementation of the amendment requires any additional revisions to Rule 1.510 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. Accordingly, the possibility remains that the rule will be modified before it takes effect.