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Court amends state summary judgment rule to federal standard

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JusticeThe Supreme Court has amended the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure to adopt the federal summary judgment standard that is expected to make it easier for judges to grant summary judgment motions.

The December 31 opinion, approving the amendments made on the court’s own motion, produced a dissent from Justice Jorge Labarga who said the action weakened Florida’s tradition of letting — as much as possible — juries decide disputed issues.

The court made the changes effective May 1 and invited comments from the Rules of Civil Procedure Committee and the public. Committee Chair Ceci Berman said the committee would discuss the ruling at its January 14 meeting as part of the Bar’s Winter Meeting.

On the same day, the court released a decision in a related case, Wilsonart, LLC, et al. v. Miguel Lopez, etc., Case No. SC19-1336, which addresses summary judgment procedure. The court had requested briefing in that case on whether it should address Florida’s summary judgment standards, but ultimately decided it was best to make the change in a rules case.

“We were pleased because the court agreed with arguments that change had to be done via the rulemaking authority and we were pleased that the court is going to give the public and the [rules] committee the opportunity to have input on the change,” said Jacksonville attorney Bryan Gowdy, who represented the respondent in the Wilsonart case.

While most lawyers might see the new rule as a major change, Gowdy said he disagreed.

“There was already confusing caselaw in Florida that echoed the federal summary judgment standard,” he said. “I think this will clarify it. I’m sure there will be cases on the margin where this makes a difference. I think it will change more about the procedure and how things have to be done.”

Berman said she’s already had multiple emails from Civil Procedure Rules Committee members about the opinion.

“I think it’s going to be viewed as a big change. The question is, is it a big change for everyone,” she said.

In its per curiam rules opinion, the court said while Rule 1.510, the Florida summary judgement rule, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 have similar language, they differ in effect. It also said a supermajority of other states use the federal standard.

Cautioning that its “discussion is not intended to limit the scope of the rule amendment that we adopt today,” the court cited three reasons for its action: Florida courts don’t recognize the similarity between summary judgment and directed verdict motions; under Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1966), the summary judgment mover has “conclusively ‘to disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact,’” which is much stricter than the federal standard; and Florida courts have an expansive interpretation of what is a “genuine (i.e. triable) issue of fact.”

Noting that it invited the parties in Wilsonart to brief the summary judgment issues and that several amicus curiae briefs were submitted as well, the court said, “We are persuaded that the federal summary judgment standard better comports with the text and purpose of rule 1.510 and that adopting that standard is in the best interest of our state. As we said at the outset, our rules of civil procedure are meant ‘to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action….’ Yet Florida courts’ interpretation of our summary judgment rule has unnecessarily failed to contribute to that objective.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muñiz, John Couriel, and Jamie Grosshans concurred in the opinion.

In his dissent, Justice Labarga argued that “when the more relaxed federal interpretation is applied to a motion for summary judgment, the trial court’s analysis goes far beyond evaluating whether an issue of material fact is in dispute. Instead, the trial court assumes a role traditionally reserved for a jury and engages in weighing evidence.

“I emphasize that it is not the dispute of any fact that precludes summary judgment, but the dispute of a genuine issue of material fact. Thus, the issue of fact must be of such import that it is dispositive of the litigant’s claim. Far from being an innocuous requirement, this language sets a much higher bar than what the majority describes….”

The court made the amendments to Civil Procedure Rule 1.510 effective on May 1 and gave interested parties until March 2 to file comments.

“We invite comments not just on this amendment, but also on whether the effective implementation of the amendment requires any additional, ancillary amendments to rule 1.510. We also invite comments on whether there are specific textual provisions of federal rule 56 that should be added to rule 1.510, and indeed whether rule 1.510 should be replaced in its entirety with the text of rule 56,” the court said, adding it specifically invited comment from the Civil Procedure Rules Committee.

The full opinion in In re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, Case No. SC20-1490, can be found here.

The Wilsonart ruling involved a wrongful death case stemming from a fatal rear-end car crash. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants because video evidence from the front automobile’s dash camera appeared to refute the plaintiff’s account of the accident.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal acknowledged the evidence but reversed because the trial judge’s actions involved weighing competing evidence. But the DCA certified a question to the Supreme Court on whether there should be an exception to the state’s summary judgment rule for video evidence that appeared to be unaltered or undoctored and refuted any conflicting evidence by the party not moving for summary judgment.

In a majority opinion by Justice Muñiz, the court answered that no exception should be made but instead that Florida should adopt the federal standard as the majority did in the simultaneous rules case. It upheld the Fifth DCA ruling but said a new summary judgment motion could be filed with the trial court once the new rule takes effect.

Chief Justice Canady, Polston, Lawson, Couriel, and Grosshans concurred.

Justice Labarga partially concurred and partially dissented, saying he agreed with upholding the Fifth DCA’s ruling and disagreed “that this case warrants reconsideration of Florida’s summary judgment standard….”

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