What Do The Florida Supreme Court Changes to Florida’s Summary Judgment Mean for the Business Community?
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On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court changed Florida’s summary judgment standard by adopting the federal standard in an amendment to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510. Summary judgment can be a useful tool that allows a court to decide a case after pleadings (and most of the time after discovery) if no questions of material fact remain. Before the amendment to Rule 1.510, Florida state courts and the federal courts disagreed on when such a question remained, and as a result Florida courts were a bit handcuffed on when the issues of a case can be winnowed before trial. In amending Rule 1.510, the Florida Supreme Court abandoned Florida’s interpretation of what constitutes a “genuine issue of material fact” in favor of the more lenient federal interpretation articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court. This amendment should be a positive development for businesses who are faced with regular litigation on issues that can or should be decided as a matter of law.
What was Florida’s old summary judgment standard?
The change arose out of Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC, 275 So. 3d 831 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019), a Florida case involving a fatal car accident. After agreeing to answer a certified question presented by the Fifth District Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court asked each party to brief the question whether Florida should switch to the federal summary judgment standard. Six of the seven Justices held that Florida should join thirty-eight other states in adopting the federal standard and amended the rule to reflect the majority’s decision.
Florida’s old Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 compelled courts to grant summary judgment if “no genuine issue as to any material fact” remained after pleadings and the presentation of summary judgment evidence. The interpretation of that phrase was the subject of the Supreme Court’s December 31 amendment to the rule.
Before the amendment, summary judgment was not proper if the pleadings and summary judgment evidence raise the “slightest doubt” that a material issue remained. Jones v. Dirs. Guild of America, Inc., 584 So. 2d 1057, 1059 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991). Key to this summary judgment standard was the court’s consideration of the entire record. Under this standard, all types of evidence had equal weight. Thus, any type of evidence could be used to successfully oppose a motion for summary judgment regardless of the evidence’s reliability.
In applying this standard, the Lopez court denied summary judgment where unaltered video evidence fully supported one party’s side of the story. In cases like Lopez, Florida courts would deny summary judgment and continue litigation even if the relative reliability of the parties’ evidence suggested that the litigation would be futile.
Why did Florida’s summary judgment standard change?
In making the decision to adopt the federal standard, the Court relied heavily on the purpose for Florida’s Rules of Civil Procedure as well as several U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions. In re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, No. SC20-1490 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020).
The purpose of both the Florida and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is to “secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010; cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 1. The majority in Lopez held that the federal summary judgment standard is more consistent with the stated purpose of Rule 1.510.
Under the federal summary judgment standard, the evidence required to overcome an opponent’s motion for summary judgment must be probative enough that a reasonable jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 47 U.S. 242 (1986). The Anderson summary judgment standard means that an issue is only a genuine issue if the evidence is significant rather than merely speculative. Inherent to this standard is the fact that certain types of evidence are more probative and reliable than others. This weighing of evidence is apparent in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), a case similar to Lopez in which unaltered video evidence fully supported the moving party’s claim and the U.S. Supreme Court granted summary judgment.
According to the Florida Supreme Court, the federal standard articulated in cases like Anderson and Scott is more consistent with the stated purpose of Florida’s Rules of Civil Procedure. By placing more weight in more reliable evidence, Florida courts will continue to reach just decisions while avoiding unnecessary litigation that would occur under the old standard.
What does the new standard mean for Florida businesses litigation?
Starting on May 1, 2020, the new summary judgment rule will apply to all civil litigation within the state of Florida. For Florida businesses, the Supreme Court’s amendment to Rule 1.510 may mean that lawsuits will end in summary judgment more frequently than before. This can mean different things for businesses depending on their role in litigating a case. Businesses acting as moving parties will seemingly be in a more favorable position than they were before the amendment.
Perhaps more importantly than a business’ status as movant or non-movant will be the type of evidence it has available to present to the court. Under the new summary judgment standard, certain types of evidence, such as video evidence, may be given more weight than other types of evidence. Businesses may have to rethink their litigation strategies when making or responding to a motion for summary judgment. Using technology to capture record business and proactively capture reliable evidence before litigation begins will also help businesses successfully adapt to the new summary judgment standard.
Summary judgment can be a useful tool that saves time and resources when litigating civil matters. Beginning May 1, 2021, Florida courts will be more favorable to granting summary judgment in an effort to promote the purpose of justice and judicial efficiency. Moving forward, Florida businesses should be aware of the newly amended standard for summary judgment and the effect the new standard may have on litigation strategy.