Florida Adopts The Federal Summary Judgment Standard For State Court Litigation

On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court amended Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 – hardly an earth-shattering headline[1]. But this could actually be a real gamechanger in Florida state court litigation.  The amendment modifies summary judgment motion practice by adopting a more lenient standard applicable in federal court.

 

What is Summary Judgment?

As background, summary judgment is a procedural weapon a party may deploy in civil litigation to conclude a case, eliminating the expense and risk of a jury trial.  In Florida, a party can request summary judgment if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”  Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510(c).  This rule tracks almost verbatim the language of its federal counterpart – Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.  See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (requiring summary judgment to be granted if the party requesting it “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”). However, Florida courts have historically applied the rule in a way that makes it more difficult to obtain summary judgment relief than a federal court litigant. Not anymore.

Effective May 1, 2021, summary judgment motions filed in Florida state courts will be construed under the federal standard. This should it make it easier to conclude a case before trial.  In deciding to amend the summary judgment rule, the Florida Supreme Court followed the lead of thirty-eight other states that have aligned with the federal judiciary on the governing standard. 

Three key distinctions between Florida and the federal court system which the court aimed to eliminate:

First, is the differing approach to a summary judgment motion and a motion for directed verdict.  Federal courts make the same inquiry in addressing both motions, which is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.”[2]  The Florida Supreme Court noted that Florida courts have consistently refused to recognize the fundamental similarity between these motions – one of which precedes trial (summary judgment) and the other which is presented at trial (directed verdict). Adopting the federal summary judgment standard clarifies that the same approach to a directed verdict motion applies to a summary judgment motion – all with an eye toward avoiding unnecessary trials.

Second, eliminating the requirement in Florida that a party seeking summary judgment affirmatively disprove the opposing party’s theory of the case.[3] The US Supreme Court has determined that the federal rule does not require a party to negate or disprove the opposing party’s claim to obtain summary judgment.[4]  Instead, the party seeking summary judgment is merely required to show the absence of any meaningful evidence supporting the opposing party’s position.

Third, narrowing what constitutes a genuine issue of material fact.  Generally, summary judgment is inappropriate if there is a “genuine issue of material fact” that requires a trial to resolve.  Florida courts historically applied an expansive view of this concept, denying summary judgment whenever there is the slightest doubt regarding a factual dispute even if the evidence seems incredible or trivial.[5]  But in federal court, the operative inquiry is whether “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the [party opposing summary judgment].”[6] Unlike Florida, summary judgment in federal court is attainable if the party opposing the relief presents a version of the facts that no reasonable jury would believe.[7]

Benefits from adopting the federal standard:

Adopting the federal summary judgment standard is a welcome development in Florida civil litigation. This should enhance efficiency in the court system, and eliminate the inconvenience, expense, and uncertainty of trial in cases where a summary judgment record is presented that does not create meaningful doubt regarding the factual background of the dispute. Indeed, a primary motivator for this change was the Florida Supreme Court’s recognition of the overarching principle in construing the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure – to secure the “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.”[8]    

[1]See In re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure, 309 So. 3d 192 (Fla. 2020).

[2]Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 US 242, 250 (1986).

[3]See Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1966).

[4]See Celotext Corp. v. Catrett, 477 US 317, 323 (1986).

[5]See Bruce J. Berman & Peter D. Webster, Berman’s Florida Civil Procedure § 1.510:5 (2020 ed.).

[6]Anderson, 477 US at 248.

[7]See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

[8]See Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010

 

 

Robert Powell is a Partner of Moorhead Real Estate Law Group.

He handles all manner of commercial disputes from straightforward contract breaches to complex, bet-the-company litigation.

To learn more about Robert and his practice, click here.