A procedural device used during civil litigation to promptly and expeditiously dispose of a case without a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the material facts of the case and a party is entitled to judgment as amatter of law.
Any party may move for summary judgment; it is not uncommon for both parties to seek it. A judge may also determine on her own initiative that summary judgment is appropriate. Unlike with pretrial motions to dismiss, information such as affidavits, interrogatories, depositions, and admissions may be considered on a motion for summary judgment. Any evidence that would be admissible at trial under the rules of evidence may support a motion for summary judgment. Usually a court will hold oral arguments on a summary judgment motion, although it may decide the motion on the parties' briefs and supporting documentation alone.
The purpose of summary judgment is to avoid unnecessary trials. It may also simplify a trial, as when partial summary judgment dispenses with certain issues or claims. For example, a court might grant partial summary judgment in a personal injury case on the issue of liability. A trial would still be necessary to determine the amount of damages.
Two criteria must be met before summary judgment may be properly granted: (1) there must be no genuine issues of material fact, and (2) the movant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue implies that certain facts are disputed. Usually a party opposing summary judgment must introduce evidence that contradicts the moving party's version of the facts. Moreover, the facts in dispute must be central to the case; irrelevant or minor factual disputes will not defeat a motion for summary judgment. Finally, the law as applied to the undisputed facts of the case must mandate judgment for the moving party. Summary judgment does not mean that a judge decides which side would prevail at trial, nor does a judge determine the credibility of witnesses. Rather, it is used when no factual questions exist for a judge or jury to decide.
The moving party has the initial burden to show that summary judgment is proper even if the moving party would not have the burden of proof at trial. The court generally examines the evidence presented with the motion in the light most favorable to the opposing party. Where the opposing party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may obtain summary judgment by showing that the opposing party has no evidence or that its evidence is insufficient to meet its burden at trial.
Jurisdictions vary in their requirements for opposing a summary judgment motion. Federal rule of civil procedure 56 governs the applicability of summary judgment in federal proceedings, and each state has its own rules. In some states it is sufficient if the party opposing the motion merely calls the court's attention to inconsistencies in the pleadings and the movant's evidence without introducing further evidence. This approach rarely results in a court's granting summary judgment. On the other hand, other jurisdictions, including federal courts, do not permit a party opposing summary judgment to rest on the pleadings alone. Once the movant has met the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the opposing party to introduce evidence to contradict the movant's allegations.