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Florida Adopts Federal Standard for Summary Judgment

Effective May 1, 2021, Florida is adopting a new summary judgment standard to comport with federal law. In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, No. SC20-1490, 2020 WL 7778179, at *1 (Dec. 31, 2020). This change is expected to impose a less restrictive standard for parties moving for summary judgment in Florida state courts.

Marking the end of 2020, the Florida Supreme Court took on a long-standing discrepancy between the summary judgment standard in Rule 1.510 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and its federal counterpart, Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. While similar, Florida courts had interpreted the Florida Rule as creating a stricter standard for a movant to prevail on a motion for summary judgment.

The Florida standard entitled a party to summary judgment when there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact and [] the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” In re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179 at *1. The Florida rule provided that “[a]ll doubts and inferences must be resolved against the moving party, and if there is the slightest doubt or conflict in the evidence, then summary judgment is not available.” Shreffler v. Philippon, 873 So. 2d 1280, 1281 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). In Byrd v. BT Foods, Inc., the Fourth District Court of Appeal compared the Florida standard to the federal standard and concluded that “Florida places a higher burden on a moving party for summary judgment in state court, requiring the movant to: “[S]how conclusively that no material issues remain for trial.” 948 So. 2d 921 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007). This important distinction made the federal standard of “limited precedential value” in Florida state courts. Id. at 924.

But in Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC, 275 So. 3d 831 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019), the Fifth District Court of Appeal was presented with an opportunity to have the Florida Supreme Court weigh in on this standard. Lopez involved a fatal rear-end collision with a freightliner truck. The freightliner had dashboard camera video showing it in the middle lane, heading straight, and slowly coming to a stop at a traffic light before being hit from behind by the plaintiff, Mr. Lopez. Mr. Lopez’s estate presented an eyewitness deposition and an expert affidavit claiming the freightliner suddenly changed lanes immediately prior to impact, which contradicted the video footage. The trial court determined that this conflicting evidence created a genuine issue of material fact, precluding summary judgment in the defendant’s favor even though the video evidence clearly contradicted the plaintiff’s claims and eyewitness accounts. The trial court held the eyewitness evidence was unsupported and granted summary judgment. On appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeal determined that a jury should weigh the evidence and could potentially apportion fault to each driver, but certified this issue to the Florida Supreme Court as a question of great public importance: whether, under Florida’s summary judgment standard, there is a genuine issue of material fact, requiring denial of summary judgment, when an eyewitness’s recollection as set forth in a statement is contradicted by objective video footage.

The Florida Supreme Court answered this question in Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336, 2020 WL 7778226, at *1 (Fla. 2020), and took the opportunity to adopt the federal summary judgment standard, ending a historic distinction between the two standards. In adopting the federal standard, the Florida Supreme Court reasoned that Florida state courts had long applied an “unreasonable” definition of what is a genuine issue of material fact warranting a trial. Id. at 2. In its opinion, the Florida Supreme Court listed three key differences between the historical interpretations and the new rule:

1. The difference between a motion for directed verdict and a motion for summary judgment

Florida state courts historically treated a pre-trial motion for summary judgment as more demanding than a motion for directed verdict, while federal courts do not. Both motions required federal courts to evaluate whether “the record taken as a whole could [] lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. . . .” Wilsonart, 2020 WL 7778226, at *1 (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)).

The Florida Supreme Court’s adoption of the federal standard means that litigants in Florida will be governed by a single standard for both motions for summary judgment and directed verdict. Historically, Florida trial courts felt the need to deny a summary judgment motion even when the trial judge believed the claim or defense would not survive a motion for directed verdict during trial. Now, summary judgment is not viewed as a “disfavored procedural shortcut” and is more within reach.

2. The moving party’s burden of proof to win at summary judgment

Florida state courts traditionally required the party moving for summary judgment to “show conclusively the absence of genuine issues of material facts.” Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40, 43 (Fla. 1966). This was a significant distinction between the more relaxed federal standard, which allowed for summary judgment based on the non-moving party’s “lack of evidence” in support of his or her claim. In Celotex Corporation v. Catrett, the Supreme Court of the United States held that once enough time for discovery had passed, the moving party only needed to show the court that there was not enough evidence for the other party to win. 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). There is no requirement under the federal rule that the moving party must negate the other side’s claims. Id. at 323.

Under the new standard, state court litigants now have the opportunity to raise stronger “no evidence” motions for summary judgment. Indeed, the amended Florida Rule of Civil Procedure expressly incorporates Celotex Corporation (as well as other precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States) into the language of the Rule. See In re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179 (Dec. 31, 2020) (“[t]he summary judgment standard provided for in this rule shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard articulated in Celotex . . . .”).

3. What creates a “genuine issue of material fact”

Summary judgment was denied under the Florida standard when there was “even the possibility of a material issue of fact.” Cox v. CSX Intermodal, Inc., 732 So. 2d 1092, 1095 (Fla. 1st DCA 1999) (italics added). Under the newly adopted federal standard, if the nonmoving party does not have “significantly probative” evidence to support his or her claim or defense, the moving party should be entitled to summary judgment. The non-moving party must show more than “some metaphysical doubt” about the material facts. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The new standard should now be based on whether a reasonable jury considering the available evidence could find for the nonmoving party, which essentially allows a trial court to weigh the record evidence prior to trial.

Conclusion

The proponents of this coming change anticipate that it will meet the goal of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure by encouraging a “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010. In fact, the Florida Supreme Court held that this rule change is intended to make summary judgment more rational, fair, and consistent with the Rules’ stated purpose. It should also dispose of claims or defenses that are unsupported by facts and should result in more cost-efficient resolution of claims.  Simply stated, Florida is now aligned with the “supermajority of states” that previously adopted the federal standard for summary judgment. Once the time for comments and discussion about potential additional amendments passes, this change should become effective on May 1, 2021.

Follow this link to the Florida Supreme Court Opinion.

Written by Alec Heydemann, Kate Spinelli, Lawrence Burkhalter and Catherine Talley.

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