Summary judgment is to litigation what the slam dunk is to basketball. When all sides agree on the relevant facts and those facts prove or disprove the case, there’s no need for a trial to weigh the evidence. No need to prepare exhibits, subpoena witnesses, practice direct and cross examinations and so forth, because all the proof is already in the record.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
In law, a summary judgment (also judgment as a matter of law) is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party summarily, i.e., without a full trial. Such a judgment may be issued on the merits of an entire case, or on discrete issues in that case.
But how do you get there? As defined in the federal rules of civil procedure, the standard for summary judgment is the same in every jurisdiction: The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Let’s unpack this standard:
- fact: a statement made or action taken. Facts are things that happened. Thoughts, gossip, opinions, statutes and court rulings are not facts.
- material: something that matters. All facts aren’t relevant to a case. The terms of a loan are relevant to a debt collection case, but the arrangement of the planets on the date of the loan is not.
- genuine dispute: contradictory evidence. Denying a fact is not enough to dispute it unless the denial comes in an affidavit or other evidence containing an opposing fact.
- matter of law: the components of a claim as defined in statutes and appellate court decisions. For instance, the typical elements of fraud are that facts have been misrepresented, that the misrepresented facts were material to a transaction, that those facts were intended to be relied upon, that the defrauded party justifiably relied upon those facts, and that material harm resulted from that person’s reliance on the misrepresented facts. When the evidence showing each of these elements is undisputed, the defrauded party can successfully move for summary judgment.
So summary judgment is not the easiest thing to achieve, but it’s doable. One of the most important tools in this effort is discovery — collecting the facts that the law says you need to prove your case. An essential part of any litigation strategy is to outline the facts necessary for summary judgment and try to get them into the record.
Pro se litigants are far more likely to be fighting a summary judgment motion than moving for one. The same standard applies. One common tactic for defeating summary judgment is to keep the discovery process alive, at least until you find or create (through affidavits) evidence that disputes a material fact. By law in most jurisdictions, no summary judgment motion can be granted until discovery is complete.