A Year Under Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard: Practical Effects
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Effective May 1, 2021, Florida adopted the federal summary judgment standard. In re Amends. to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 317 So. 3d 72, 77 (Fla. 2021). The new summary judgment standard substantively changed the standards courts apply when evaluating a motion for summary judgment, substantially changed the procedural rules applicable to summary judgment. Forecasters predicted the change to Florida’s summary judgment rules would have a significant impact on Florida litigants. In practice, the impact of the new summary judgment rules on Florida litigants appears smaller than anticipated.
What are the substantive effects of Florida’s new summary judgment standard?
On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court changed Florida’s summary judgment. Florida’s old summary judgment standard compelled courts to grant summary judgment only if “no genuine issue as to any material fact” remained. The court considered the entire record and if there was the “slightest doubt” that a material issue remained, summary judgment was not warranted. Jones v. Dirs. Guild of America, Inc., 584 So. 2d 1057, 1059 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991). Movants under the old standard had to prove “a negative, i.e., the non-existence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40, 43 (Fla. 1966).
Florida’s new summary judgment standard requires the evidence on the issue of fact be probative enough that a reasonable jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986). In short, the new standard is more a rigorous one and requires an issue of fact be significant for the nonmoving party to survive summary judgment. The motivation for the change was to allow more cases to be resolved on summary judgment and for parties moving for summary judgment to generally have more success. Our court system needed to be unclogged.
In practice however, appellate courts reviewing grants of summary judgment remain wary of resolving contested matters at summary judgment. When an Orange County Circuit Court judge began to “weigh and judge the credibility of the evidence,” the Fifth District Court of Appeals found that “While [there] no longer [is] an absolute prohibition—depending on the nature of the evidence—the general rule remains intact: credibility determinations and weighing the evidence ‘are jury functions, not those of a judge,’ when ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Gracia v. Sec. First Ins. Co., 2022 WL 4111171, at *2 (Fla. 5d DCA 2022). In practice, “[o]nly when the record evidence blatantly contradicts a litigant’s version of the facts will a court be allowed to weigh conflicting evidence or determine the credibility of a witness.” Id. Thus, while a review of the record on summary judgment is certainly more rigorous, the practical effects seem to be less pervasive than expected. The practical adoption of the new standard at the appellate level seems to be a work in progress.
While summary judgment is now technically possible in more cases, rarely does record evidence blatantly contradict a litigant’s version of the facts. According to Westlaw Analytics, in the two years prior to the adoption of the new summary judgment standard, Florida Circuit Courts approved roughly five (5) percent of the motions for summary judgments before them. Since the adoption of the new summary judgment standard, according to the same Westlaw Analytics, Florida Circuit Courts have approved roughly eight (8) percent of the motions for summary judgment before them. While far from inconsequential, a three (3) percent change in overall approval rates is not consistent with the transformative impact on Florida litigation that was widely anticipated.
How have the procedural changes to Florida’s summary judgment rules impacted Florida litigants?
Florida’s new summary judgment rule is codified in Rule 1.150, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. Under the old rule, a party had to serve its motion for summary judgment at least 20 days before a hearing on the motion and a response was due 5 days before a hearing on the motion (2 business days if service was by email). Under the new rule, pursuant to Rule 1.150(b), Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion for summary judgment must be served at least 40 days before a hearing on the motion and a response must be served 20 days before a hearing on the motion.
These changes to the timing deadlines are particularly important for parties responding to summary judgment because pursuant to Rule 1.150(e), if a party fails to address another party’s assertion of fact, the court may allow the party to “address it,” or “consider the fact undisputed.” In effect, if a response was not filed the court was permitted but not required to “grant summary judgment” if warranted, or issue any “appropriate order.” In practice, courts have found a failure to respond to a motion for summary judgment entirely dispositive. See Lloyd S. Meisels, P.A. v. Dobrofsky, 341 So. 3d 1131, 1133 (Fla. 4d DCA 2022) (“We hold that, under the facts of this case, where the nonmoving party failed to respond to the motion for summary judgment as required by the rule, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion by considering the moving party’s facts as undisputed and granting summary final judgment. . . . Rule 1.510(c)(5) states that ‘the nonmovant must serve a response.’ There is no wiggle room in the word ‘must.’). Unsurprisingly, appellate courts are more willing to affirm summary judgment findings when the nonmovant violates a procedural requirement than when the trial court grants summary judgment on substantive grounds.
An additional procedural change is found within Rule 1.150(c)(3) and 1.150(f) which provide that the court need “consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record” and that the court may, after giving notice and time to respond “(1) grant summary judgment for a nonmovant (2) grant the motion on grounds not raised by a party; or (3) consider summary judgment on its own after identifying for the parties material facts that may not be genuinely in dispute.” Collectively, this means that Florida courts are now empowered to grant summary judgment for either party on grounds entirely unrelated to grounds stated in the motion for summary judgment that was filed. In practice, a Florida court disposing of a case on grounds entirely unrelated to the pleadings of is rare. The adversarial nature of the Florida legal system is fundamental. See In re Amends. to Rules Reg. Fla. Bar—1–3.1(a) & Rules of Jud. Admin.—2.065 (Legal Aid), 573 So.2d 800, 804 (Fla.1990) (“Lawyers as advocates are essential to our common law adversary system. . . . Without adversaries, the system would not work.”).
Finally, under Rule 1.150(a), trial courts are required to “state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion.” This clear requirement for stating the basis for granting or denying motions for summary judgment allows for parties to appeal the trial court’s findings on summary judgment more easily. While previously the reason for approving or denying summary judgment may have been somewhat nebulous, the new rule requires more transparency regarding the court’s decision. See e.g. Quest Diagnostics Inc. v. Hall, 2020 WL 4577192, at *3 (Fla. 5th DCA 2020) (due to a lack of specificity in the trial court’s decision , the appellate court did “not know whether the trial court’s misunderstanding regarding the requested testimony impacted its decision” and thus the appealing party “[had] not demonstrated that the lower court departed from the essential requirements of the law”). Under the new rule, the court must provide the basis for its decision with “enough specificity . . . to allow for appellate review”. The court must state the reasons for its decision with enough specificity to provide useful guidance to the parties and, if necessary, to allow for appellate review.” In re Amends. to Fla. R. of Civ. P. 1.510, 317 So. 3d at 77; Jones v. Ervolino, 339 So. 3d 473, 475 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022); See Rkhub Logistics LLC v. E. Auto Motor Corp., 2022 WL 3050346, at *1 (Fla. 4d DCA 2022) (“it will not be enough for the court to make a conclusory statement that there is or is not a genuine dispute as to a material fact.”). Specificity can be provided through written order or orally at hearing if transcripts of the proceedings are available. See Simmons v. Pub. Health Tr. of Miami-Dade Cty., 2022 WL 1397454, at *2–3 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022) (“the transcripts of the two hearings held on [movant’s] motion demonstrate that the trial court stated the reasons for its decision with enough specificity to allow for appellate review” and were therefore held sufficient). Thus, while courts can make accelerated, resolute decisions to dispose of issues or cases, they are required to explain themselves in order to protect the integrity of the legal process. Checks and balances in our legal system are alive and well.
Florida’s new summary judgment standard substantively differs from the old summary judgment standard in requiring “no genuine issue as to any material fact” exists for summary judgment to be warranted. While this substantive change and the procedural changes to the Florida summary judgment rules are undoubtedly important, the substantive impacts seem less significant for the time being. As Florida litigants adapt to operation under the new summary judgment rules, the practical effects of the change to the rule are less impactful than expected. As they say, change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gratifying in the end.