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Florida Supreme Court Adopts the Federal Summary Judgment Standard

November 17, 2021
February 2, 2021

The Supreme Court, on its own initiative, amended Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, which governs summary judgment.[1] In doing so, the court has elected to adopt the federal summary judgment standard, overriding the prior Florida standard.

The Florida summary judgment standard, in essence, empowers a trial court to deny summary judgment if it is opposed by even the barest contrary evidence. In practice, this has resulted in affidavits by retained experts, hired expressly for this purpose, offering an affidavit or report disagreeing with the moving party’s basis for summary judgment, without the trial court having the ability to truly examine whether or not such statements are valid, properly predicated upon evidence in the case, or even true. The trial court is not permitted to “weigh” the evidence, which means that, in practice, even demonstrably false evidence could arguably create an issue of fact that precludes summary judgment and leaves such a dispute up to the jury. A jury certainly could weigh the evidence and find such evidence to be false, or at least unconvincing, but that is only after the parties have expended significant additional time and money preparing for trial, not to mention taking up far more of the judge’s time.

The federal summary judgment standard[2], on the other hand, asks whether there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that non-moving party at trial. As a result, the trial court can actually consider the validity and efficacy of the evidence offered, rather than its mere existence in a vacuum being enough to deny summary judgment.

Regardless of the standard, the purpose of summary judgment, and of the general state and federal rules of civil procedure, for that matter, is “to secure the just speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.”[3] Yet in practice, the Florida standard has resulted in the vast majority of motions for summary judgment being denied. It is the rare case where a motion for summary judgment is granted, and many such cases are ultimately granted due to exceedingly clear issues, mistakes by the non-moving party (such as missing the deadline for filing evidence in opposition), or material deficiencies in the expert evidence in opposition.[4]

The federal standard will go into effect for Florida courts beginning on May 1, 2021. At that time, Florida trial courts will be required to apply additional scrutiny to evidence offered in opposition to summary judgment. The federal standard will empower trial court judges to make a judgment call as to the validity of the evidence, as outlined by the United States Supreme Court: “[w]hen opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.”[5]

The Florida Supreme Court came to this amendment based upon a finding that the Florida standard has failed to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action, and that “the federal summary judgment standard is more rational, more fair, and more consistent with the structure and purpose of our rules of civil procedure.”[6]

While the ultimate result of this amendment to the summary judgment rule will take some time to be borne out in the trial courts, once it goes into effect it is reasonable to expect that it should result in a higher proportion of motions for summary judgment being granted. Trial courts will be empowered to apply their own logic to the evidence presented, likely significantly reducing the number of cases that are required to go to trial just to resolve factual disputes.

This amendment is not expected to infringe in any material way upon those valid disputes which are bound for trial; it would simply minimize the waste on judicial resources in cases where opposing evidence is offered more to keep the case alive beyond the summary judgment stage, regardless of the actual merits of the cause of action.

[1] In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, No. SC20-1490 (Fla. December 31, 2020).

[2] See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986).

[3] Fla.R. Civ. P. 1.010; cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 1.

[4] See Gonzalez v. Citizens Prop. Ins. Corp., 273 So. 3d 1031 (Fla. 3d DCA 2019).

[5] Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

[6] In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 at Page 6 of 11.