Understanding the Litigation Process: Summary Judgments

May 29, 2012

A summary judgment is a motion brought by either a plaintiff or a defendant that asks the Court to decide that the other side has no claims or defenses which require a trial. In its traditional form, a motion for summary judgment requires the Court to find that there are no genuine issues as to any “material fact.”

The ultimate purpose of going to trial is for the jury (or sometimes the judge) to hear and weigh conflicting evidence and make an ultimate determination on the issues in the case. In a summary judgment, you demonstrate to the Court that the important, or material, facts are not disputed. Or, essentially, you tell the Court “even if you believe all of the other sides’ facts, I still win.” For example, if you allege another individual breached a written contract you had with them but you wait more than 4 years to bring a lawsuit.  You, as the defendant in the suit, can file a motion for summary judgment saying that even if everything the plaintiff alleges were true, they waited too long to file suit and because of the statute of limitations, there are no “material facts” at issue in the case and their claims must be dismissed without having to go to trial.  When filing for summary judgment, all of the evidence for the Court to consider must be attached to the motion (i.e. affidavits, deposition testimony, answers to written discovery, etc.). It is essentially a trial “on paper” and all of the evidence the Court can consider must be in, or attached to, the summary judgment motion. The other side must also be given at least 21 days notice of the hearing before the Court can take up the motion.

In a recent federal trade secret case, BoyarMiller was able to successfully obtain summary judgment on several alleged “trade secrets” relating to a large Oil & Gas company’s down-hole clean out tools.  We argued certain alleged trade secrets could not be “secret” as a matter of law because they were externally visible features, were common and well known in the industry, or had been listed in technical information published over the internet.  The Court agreed and eliminated many of the trade secrets from the case entirely and dramatically narrowed the key issues in the case.

There is also what is called a “no evidence” summary judgment.  Unlike a traditional motion for summary judgment, here a movant doesn’t point out that key facts are undisputed, but rather, that the other party has no evidence to back up its claim or defense.  However, “no evidence” summary judgments require the expiration of an adequate time for discovery.  Traditional motions for summary judgments, on the other hand, can be filed at any time.  No evidence summary judgments are also a useful tool in forcing the other party to show the evidence they are going to use to support a claim at trial or risk their claim being dismissed.

When used properly, traditional and “no evidence” summary can be a very formidable weapon against a frivolous claim or a defense in your case.