Standard of Review for a Summary Judgment Motion in Federal Court

Summary judgment is a commonly used litigation tool. Either party in litigation may seek to have the court rule on all or some of the claims by moving for summary judgment: A defendant may ask the court to rule on some or all of the claims against it and the plaintiff may ask the court to rule in its favor on its claims. The requirements for a motion for summary judgment in federal court are set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 56.

FRCP 56 requires a federal court to grant a motion for summary judgment if the party shows no genuine dispute of material fact exists and the party “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The moving party must reference specific parts of materials from the record to show it does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute or show that the other party cannot support facts allegedly at issue with admissible evidence. Cited materials may include depositions, stipulations, affidavits or declarations, admissions, interrogatory responses, and other documents and materials. FRCP 56(c).

In Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1986 that a party seeking summary judgment does not have to provide proof, such as an affidavit, that negates the adverse party’s claim. Instead, the court must grant a motion for summary judgment against a party who does not establish an essential element of their case for which they have the burden of proof.

Opposing a Motion for Summary Judgment

Once the moving party shows there is no genuine dispute of material fact, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to affirmatively show that there is. To be material, the facts in dispute must have the potential to affect the case’s outcome. The opposing party must be given sufficient time to conduct discovery. The court may deny the motion if there has not been adequate time for discovery. If the nonmoving party has not had time to obtain discovery, it may file an affidavit or declaration pursuant to FRCP 56(d) stating the reasons it is unable to present the facts supporting its opposition. In such cases, the court may defer the motion, deny the motion, allow additional time for discovery, affidavits, or declarations, or issue another appropriate order.

Supporting Evidence

Evidence submitted to support or oppose a motion for summary judgment does not have to be in admissible form. Parties must cite to the “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” in the record that support their position. A party may object to materials cited by the other party that cannot be presented in admissible form.

Summary Judgment Standard

The court’s role is not to weigh the evidence when deciding a motion for summary judgment, but to determine if there is a material fact in dispute. Generally, a trial court deciding whether to grant a motion for summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing any reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. The Supreme Court in 2007 held in Scott v. Harris, however, that a trial court should not adopt a party’s version of the facts when the record “blatantly contradicts” it such that a reasonable jury could not believe it. The trial court, therefore, must view the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment only if there exists a genuine dispute regarding those facts. There is not a genuine dispute of facts if the record could not support a finding in favor of the non-moving party by a rational trier of fact. The evidence cited by the non-moving party does not have to be in admissible form, but the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings.

Appellate Standard of Review

Appellate courts review a trial court’s decision on a motion for summary judgment de novo, meaning the appellate court gives no deference to the trial court. Like the trial court, the appellate court reviews the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and gives the non-moving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences.

If a party loses a summary-judgment motion and the case is still pending at the trial level, they must seek an interlocutory appeal to appeal the decision before trial.

You can read more about standards of review on appeal here.