Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Course and Jettisons Unworkable Summary Judgment Standard

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Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court entered its opinion in Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis, MPLLC. In it, the Supreme Court held the analytical framework governing summary judgments in Tennessee state courts since 2008 is unworkable. That standard—first announced in the Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co. opinion—had been widely seen as a particularly high one and substantially more rigorous than the standards used by the federal courts and in all but eight other states.

Jettisoning the Hannan summary judgment standard, the Supreme Court adopted the familiar standard used by federal courts (and over 40 other states) in deciding summary judgment motions – motions by which a party seeks judgment in its favor without a trial because there are no material factual disputes left for trial. The texts of the Tennessee and federal summary judgment motion rule are substantially similar, after all.

If the texts of the two rules are substantially similar, what then made the standard created by the Hannan court substantially more rigorous? Under the Hannan standard, courts could not grant summary judgment by relying on the nonmoving party’s lack of proof at the summary judgment stage by which a jury might reasonably rule in the nonmoving party’s favor. To the contrary, Tennessee state courts were required to assume the nonmoving party might obtain evidence to support the claim by the time of trial. Under the federal standard, however, courts are permitted to grant summary judgment if the nonmoving party fails to show at the summary judgment stage that a genuine issue of material fact remains for trial.

To emphasize the difference between the standard adopted in Rye from the unworkable Hannan standard, the Supreme Court succinctly stated “[t]he focus is on the evidence the nonmoving party comes forward with at the summary judgment stage, not on hypothetical evidence that theoretically could be adduced . . .at a future trial.”

The new standard applies to all pending cases. With a more workable standard that does not take into account “hypothetical evidence” that theoretically might be obtained by trial, litigants may be more inclined to invest time, effort, and expense in summary judgment motions. Of course a sound, well-executed strategy early on in the case is likely to enhance prospects for success.

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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