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Understanding Summary Judgment: A Useful Way to Win

October 23rd, 2015

Understanding the legal process may be seen by some as within the sole confines of a lawyer’s job, and that they as laypersons in the legal field are on a ‘need to know’ basis.  It might be helpful, though, to be able to know what happens to the majority of lawsuits that are filed in our country.  Specifically, through the process known as summary judgment, the outcome of many of today’s lawsuits are determined in a fraction of the time the legal process normally takes in order to go from file to trial.  A good example of a recent summary judgment case is Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse, Inc. v. Universal Life Church World Headquarters, Inc.  The appellate court’s decision in this case serves as an excellent primer for anyone wishing to expand their knowledge of the legal process.8572607587_fff58574bf

Summary judgment, generally

Typically, parties involved in litigation file motions for summary judgment when they believe that the information presented early on in the process shows that there is “no genuine issue of material fact.”  These motions, or written requests to the court, contain the moving party’s arguments as to why they believe a jury (or fact finder) is not needed and ask the court to make a final decision on the merits of the case without any further litigation.  These types of motions save the judicial system and litigants from expending time and money on what are either frivolous cases or cases that are merely in need of a judge’s interpretation of the law.  According to one study, only 1.2% of federal civil cases actually made it through the process to be decided at trial.  All the rest were decided through the use of legal mechanisms such as summary judgment, motions to dismiss and settlement.

One of the primary elements of a successful summary judgment motion is understanding what exactly is a “material fact.”  Consider an automobile accident case, in which the litigants are arguing over who had the green light.  Evidence that would be used to help a jury make this determination would be eyewitness testimony, any photographs or camera footage from the scene at the time of the accident, and testimony of a crash reconstruction expert.  All of this information would need to be analyzed objectively by the fact finder who would determine who was more likely to have the right-of-way, based on the evidence.  This is an example of a material fact.  It is something that cannot be determined merely by a person’s knowledge of the law.  Oftentimes, these types of determinations require the factfinder to consider intangible evidence such as motive, circumstantial evidence or credibility.

Case in point

Returning to the case mentioned above, this particular summary judgment decision likely saved the parties thousands of dollars in legal fees and freed the court system from what could have been a trial process that would take weeks or months to complete.  As the appellate court pointed out, there was no evidence or testimony that created an issue of material fact that would need to be weighed by a factfinder.  The district court correctly was able to view the evidence provided and make a decision based on the law as applied to that evidence.  This and other cases that move through our legal system will continue to be monitored by Universal Life Church Case Law, to ensure that citizens remain informed about the processes that shape the law of the land in the United States.

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