Florida Supreme Court Ends 2020 With Adoption of the Federal Summary Judgment Standard
Out with the old, in with the new: the Florida Supreme Court closed out 2020 with a key decision that eliminates Florida’s previous summary judgment standard in favor of the federal standard articulated in the Celotex trilogy. The opinion — released on New Year’s Eve — provides that the new summary judgment standard will take effect on May 1, 2021. See In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, No. SC20-1490 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020) (per curiam).
The rule amendment will change Florida’s jurisprudence in three primary ways, with the overarching purpose of securing “the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action”:
First, Florida courts will recognize the similarity between a motion for directed verdict and a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 2–3. In both contexts, the inquiry will be the same: “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.”
Second, Florida courts will abandon the requirement that the moving party must negate or otherwise conclusively “disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact.” Id. at 3. Instead, a movant should prevail if, after adequate time for discovery, the nonmoving party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an essential element of a claim for which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial. Id. 3–4.
Third, Florida courts must abandon their expansive understanding of what constitutes a genuine issue of material fact. Specifically, the prior state standard for a genuine issue of fact (“slightest doubt”) is being replaced with the federal standard (whether a “reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party”). Id. at 4–5. In other words, “metaphysical doubt” will not be enough to generate a genuine issue of material fact to avoid summary judgment. Id. at 4.
The Florida Supreme Court emphasized that the purpose of adopting the federal summary judgment standard is to “improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system, to relieve the parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation, and to save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution.” Id. at 6–7. By adopting the federal standard, Florida aligns itself with 38 other states that have adopted the federal standard in whole or in part.
This important decision follows a series of certified questions arising from a fatal rear-end car crash case, Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020). In Lopez, the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants based on video evidence that appeared to refute plaintiff’s version of events. The Fifth District reversed, finding that the trial court had “improperly weighed competing evidence on material facts.” Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC, 275 So. 3d 831, 834 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019).
The Fifth District, apparently conflicted by the compelling nature of the video evidence, certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court asking whether Florida should recognize an exception to its summary judgment standard to allow for the entry of summary judgment where the movant’s unaltered video evidence completely negates or refutes any conflicting evidence presented by the non-moving party in opposition to the summary judgment motion. Lopez, No. SC19-1336, at 1, 4. The Florida Supreme Court answered the Fifth District’s question in the negative because it did “not see a principled basis for engrafting onto Florida’s existing summary judgment standard a special interpretive rule for cases involving video evidence.” Id. at 5.
The Florida Supreme Court, however, viewed the Fifth District’s certified question as raising a larger issue in Florida’s summary judgment standard — the “unreasonable definition of what constitutes a ‘genuine issue’ in need of resolution by a jury.” See id. at 5. The Florida Supreme Court invited the parties to brief whether Florida should adopt the summary judgment standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); and Matsushita Electric Industries Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986), and whether Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 must be amended to reflect any change in the summary judgment standard. Id. at 2.
The Florida Supreme Court answered its own questions “yes” and simultaneously released an amendment to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 to bring Florida’s summary judgment standard in line with federal precedent. Id. at 4. The court’s adoption of the federal summary judgment standard is intended to further the rules’ objectives by more actively isolating and disposing of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Id. Put bluntly, the court found the federal standard “is more rational, more fair, and more consistent with the structure and purpose of our rules of civil procedure.” Id. at 6.
Procedurally, the new standard for summary judgment will not take effect until May 1, 2021. As for the defendants in Lopez, although the Florida Supreme Court “approve[d] the result in the Fifth District Court of Appeal” reversing the trial court’s entry of summary judgment, it expressly rendered its decision “without prejudice to the Petitioners’ ability to seek summary judgment under Florida’s new summary judgment standard, once our rule amendment takes effect.” Lopez, No. SC19-1336, at 6.
Florida’s new summary judgment standard is significant because it announces a familiar, achievable standard to dispose of claims that are unsupported by evidence. For any pending dispositive motion practice that may be decided during the gap period before the rule amendment takes effect, movants should strongly consider requesting that any decision be made without prejudice to seek summary judgment under the new summary judgment standard once the rule amendment takes effect.