What is Summary Judgment?
By: Rudman Winchell Attorney Colin E. Howard
Summary judgment is an increasingly common element of litigation in Maine. For many lawsuits, summary judgment is as far as they get. For those that do make it through, the process is sometimes more time consuming than trial itself. But what is it exactly?
Summary judgment is when the court decides a case without having an actual trial first. The court looks at all of the evidence that has been collected and decides whether a trial is necessary. If it’s not, the court will issue a summary judgment, deciding that one party wins, and the other loses.
Summary judgment is really about whether trial is necessary or not. After all of the evidence is collected, one party argues that there doesn’t need to be a trial, and the other party argues the opposite.
Trial is about facts. It’s where the parties present their evidence and call their witnesses to prove to the jury or the judge that their version of the facts is true. If there is a factual dispute—a disagreement about what actually happened—trial may be required.
Summary judgment is about the law. It’s where the parties agree upon a single version of the facts and argue about how the law affects their case. If there is a legal dispute—a disagreement over what the law means or how it should apply—and if the answer to that dispute means that one party might lose their case, summary judgment might be appropriate.
Here’s an example. Plaintiff sues Defendant alleging that Defendant accessed Plaintiff’s email account in a way that broke the law. The parties might have to go to trial if Defendant has evidence that she did not access Plaintiff’s email account. Each party presents evidence, and the jury decides who is right. However, before trial, Defendant might file a motion for summary judgment. She doesn’t argue about the facts; she argues about the law. Defendant tells the judge, “Assuming that I did access Plaintiff’s email account as Plaintiff says, it wasn’t against the law, so Plaintiff loses.”
In rare circumstances, a factual dispute may be decided at the summary judgment level. But that is only if the other party is totally unable to produce any evidence at all to prove its point. (For example, if Plaintiff above could produce no evidence—even her own testimony—that Defendant accessed her email.) Remember: the court will basically assume the truth of any evidence that the non-moving party produces at summary judgment.
Recently, in two separate opinions, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has reminded the lower courts that summary judgment should never be a substitute for trial—it is only appropriate when there are no important factual disputes. But while the highly-technical procedure may change, summary judgment will remain an important facet of litigation in Maine.