By Howard S. Goldfarb, a Partner with Homer Bonner Jacobs Ortiz, P.A. in Miami, FL.
On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court amended Florida’s summary judgment rule. In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, No. SC20-1490, 2020 WL 7778179 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020). The amendment brings Florida’s rule in line with the federal summary judgment standard set forth in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986), Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986), and Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986). In the Celotex trilogy, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that the “[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of [civil procedural rules] as a whole.”1 Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327.
From a strictly textual perspective, the amendment’s changes appear minor. The amendment alters only a single word from prior Rule 1.510(c), substituting in the word “dispute” for the word “issue,” and now provides that “[t]he judgment sought must be rendered immediately if the pleadings and summary judgment evidence on file show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” (emphasis added).
The amendment also adds a statement that “[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 [the Celotex trilogy].” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510(c). But this statement appears duplicative when compared with the rest of the rule’s text, as “the critical sentences” in Florida’s pre-amendment rule and in the federal summary judgment rule “are materially indistinguishable.” In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179, at *1.
However, as the Florida Supreme Court recognized in making this amendment, Florida courts have construed Florida’s summary judgment rule in a manner that both differed from how federal courts construed the federal rule and was often hostile to the overarching purpose shared by both the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure—“to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010; Fed. R. Civ. P. 1 (providing that the federal rules should be construed “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”). The Florida Supreme Court found in particular that Florida courts have construed the pre-amendment language to result in at least three “consequential differences” from the federal summary judgment standard. In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179, at *1.
First, “Florida courts [have] repeatedly declined to recognize the fundamental similarity between a motion for directed verdict and a motion for summary judgment.” Id. (quoting Thomas Logue & Javier Alberto Soto, Florida Should Adopt the Celotex Standard for Summary Judgment, 76 Fla. Bar J. Feb. 2002, at 20, 22). In sharp contrast, however, the federal summary judgment standard “mirrors” the standard for a directed verdict and “the inquiry under each is the same: whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-52.
Second, “Florida courts have required the moving party conclusively to disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact.” In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179, at *1 (internal quotations omitted). This is appreciably different than the federal standard, where there is “no express or implied requirement in Rule 56 that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent’s claim.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Thus, in contrast to the Florida standard, “under the federal summary judgment standard, ‘the extent of the moving party’s burden varies depending on who bears the burden of persuasion at trial.’” In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179, at *1 (quoting Salo v. Tyler, 417 P. 3d 581, 587 (Utah 2018)).
And third, Florida courts have under the pre-amendment language adopted “an expansive understanding of what constitutes a genuine (i.e., triable) issue of material fact.” Id. *2. This has led Florida courts to construe the pre-amendment language to mean that the “existence of any competent evidence creating an issue of fact, however credible or incredible, substantial or trivial, stops the inquiry and precludes summary judgment, so long as the ‘slightest doubt’ is raised.” Id. (quoting Bruce J. Berman & Peter D. Webster, Berman’s Florida Civil Procedure § 1.510:5 (2020 ed.)). This substantially differs from the federal standard where “[i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted,” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted), and where a party opposing summary judgment “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586.
By bringing the Florida summary judgment standard in line with the federal standard, the Florida Supreme Court has by its own account attempted to “improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system, to relieve parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation, and to save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution.” In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 2020 WL 7778179, at *2.
The Florida Supreme Court delayed the effective date of the amendment until May 1, 2021 to allow for public comments. This invitation includes not only a request for comment on the rule itself, but also a request for comment on whether additional amendments are needed to effectively implement the rule, including whether the rule should be replaced in its entirety with the text of Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Any interested person has until March 2, 2021 to submit a comment with the Florida Supreme Court, along with a separate request for oral argument if the person wishes to participate in any scheduled oral argument.2
- Matsushita permits a court to enter summary judgment where the non-movant relies upon inferences drawn from the evidence that are “implausible.” 475 U.S. at 592-94. Anderson allows a court to enter summary judgment if the non-moving party’s evidence is insufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the non-moving party’s favor—a “mere scintilla of evidence” from the non-movant is not enough. 477 U.S. at 248, 252. And Celotex clarified that the movant does not always carry the burden of producing evidence in support of summary judgment—where the trial burden lies with the non-movant on any dispositive issue the burden shifts to the non-movant to show a genuine issue for trial. 477 U.S. at 324.
- Note 2 on page 7 of the court’s opinion details how interested parties can file comments.