A Motion for Summary Judgment sometimes also called a Motion for Judgment as to a Matter of Law is a relatively common motion that is heard in all types of civil cases in the Superior Courts of New Jersey. Generally speaking, a Motion for Summary Judgment requests that the court enter judgment in favor of the party that has filed the motion and decide the case then and there based on the law and certain undisputed material facts. Summary Judgment is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party summarily, i.e., without a full trial. The Motion can be seen as a way for the court and the parties to a lawsuit to potentially save time and money on a given case and have the entire case or certain legal issues decided by the court prior to trial. The party filing the motion (the "moving party") is essentially saying that, given these certain undisputed facts and the current state of the law, we should have this issue decided in our favor without the issue having to go to trial and having to be considered by the jury.
A Motion for Summary Judgment can be filed by the plaintiff or the defendant to a lawsuit. A plaintiff may seek summary judgment on any cause of action, and similarly, a defendant may seek summary judgment in its favor on any affirmative defense. But in either case, the moving party must produce evidence in support of each and every essential element of the claim or defense as it would have to do at trial. To really be successful, this type of motion is usually drafted as a written preview of a party's entire case-in-chief (that it would put before the finder of fact at trial) because all parts of an entire claim or defense are at issue. A partial summary judgment can also be requested. A partial summary judgment is a summary judgment that is limited to certain issues in a case and that disposes of only a portion of the whole case. For instance, in a motor vehicle accident case where the liability is not in question a Summary Judgment motion could be filed on liability only. If successful, than only the issue of injuries and damages would need to proceed on to trial. The Summary Judgment Motion would have determined which defendants were responsible for the accident before the matter ever made it to trial.
Motions for Summary Judgment in New Jersey State Superior Court are governed by several New Jersey Court Rules. New Jersey Court Rule 4:46-1 governs the time frame for making, filing and serving a Motion for Summary Judgment. It states the following:
"A party seeking any affirmative relief may, at any time after the expiration of 35 days from the service of the pleading claiming such relief, move for a summary judgment or order on all or any part thereof or as to any defense. A party against whom a claim for such affirmative relief is asserted may move at any time for a summary judgment or order as to all or any part thereof. All motions for summary judgment shall be returnable no later than 30 days before the scheduled trial date, unless the court otherwise orders for good cause shown, and if the decision is not communicated to the parties at least 10 days prior to the scheduled trial date, an application for adjournment shall be liberally granted. Except as otherwise provided by R. 6:3-3 (motion practice in Special Civil Part) or unless the court otherwise orders, a motion for summary judgment shall be served and filed not later than 28 days before the time specified for the return date; opposing affidavits, certifications, briefs, and cross-motions for summary judgment, if any, shall be served and filed not later than 10 days before the return date; and answers or responses to such opposing papers or to cross-motions shall be served and filed not later than four days before the return date. No other papers may be filed without leave of court."
New Jersey Court Rule 4:46-2 also governs what is submitted in support of the Motion for Summary Judgment, any opposition to the motion, and also sets forth standard for evaluating the motion. In support of the motion the moving party must submit a motion served with briefs, a statement of material facts and with or without supporting affidavits. There are also must be citations contained in the statement of material facts to the portion of the motion record establishing the fact or demonstrating that it is uncontroverted. See Rule 4:46-2(a). The non-moving party filing opposition to the Summary Judgment Motion must file a responding statement either admitting or disputing each of the facts in the movant's statement. An opposing party may also include in the responding statement additional facts that the party contends are material and as to which there exists a genuine issue. Each such fact shall be stated in separately numbered paragraphs together with citations to the motion record. See Rule 4:46-2(b). The standard applied in evaluating Summary Judgment motions is set forth under 4:46-2(c), which states the following:
"The judgment or order shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law. An issue of fact is genuine only if, considering the burden of persuasion at trial, the evidence submitted by the parties on the motion, together with all legitimate inferences therefrom, favoring the non-moving party, would require submission of the issue to the trier of fact . . ."
Brill v. Guardian Insurance Company of America, 142 N.J. 520 (1995) is a New Jersey case often cited when describing the law regarding Summary Judgment standard in New Jersey State Court. In Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 142 N.J. 520 (1995) the New Jersey Supreme Court specifically stated that:
"Under this new standard, a determination whether there exists a 'genuine issue' of material fact that precludes summary judgment requires the motion judge to consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational fact-finder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill, 142 N.J. at 540.
Accordingly, it is important to note that the non-moving party will be given all inferences by the court and has the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to them.
As indicated above partial summary judgment can also be entered in a given case. There are several court rules that also address that issue. If on a Summary Judgment Motion the judgment is not entered upon the whole action or for all the relief asked and a trial is necessary, the court at the hearing of the motion, by examining the pleadings and the evidence before it and speaking with counsel shall determine what material facts, including facts as to the amount of damages, exist without substantial controversy and make an order specifying those facts and directing such further proceedings in the action as are appropriate. See Rule 4:46-3(a). If after hearing the Summary Judgment Motion it appears to the court that the case may be fully or partially adjudicated upon limited testimony with or without specific further discovery. The court shall proceed, if practicable, to enter an order fixing a date certain for the trial of specifically identified disputed factual issues and, if appropriate, fixing the subject, mode, and time for completion of discovery. See Rule 4:46-3(b). Summary Judgment certainly can be utilized as a tool to limit the issues for trial.
A party seeking summary judgment may refer to any evidence that would be admissible at trial, such as deposition transcripts, party admissions, affidavits of witnesses, documents received during discovery such as contracts, e-mails, letters and/or certified governmental documents. This type of evidence would also be accompanied by a declaration from the party submitting them that all copies of the documents are true and correct, including deposition excerpts. Each party also presents to the court its view of applicable law by submitting a legal memorandum brief supporting, or opposing, the motion. The opposing party may also file its own Summary Judgment Motion ("cross-motion"), although there are certain deadlines that would have to be met. See Rule 4:46-1. The court often requires oral argument from the lawyers. Usually the oral argument involves the judge questioning the lawyers on issues in the case and would usually be required only when there is opposition filed to the motion. As opposition is filed in most cases, oral argument on Summary Judgment Motions is common.
In New Jersey, typically a judge will not consider granting summary judgment if there is still discovery that needs to be completed in a given case. As indicated above, Summary Judgment is often decided based upon evidence such as documents, deposition testimony transcripts, witness affidavits and the like. Accordingly, if the parties have not had a chance to obtain all relevant documents and depose important witnesses, the case will often be considered to be not"ripe" for a Summary Judgment motion. If discovery has not been completed and there are additional facts that need to be obtained then a Summary Judgment Motion will often be considered pre-mature. If the court determines that a Summary judgment Motion is pre-mature, then the motion will likely be denied, however, there is usually nothing preventing the motion form being re-filed after the discovery has been completed and if any additional facts have not changed the original basis for the Summary Judgment motion. Further, in Parks v. Rodgers, 176 N.J. 491, 502 (2003) the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that a motion for summary judgment should be denied where determination of material disputed facts depends primarily on credibility evaluations. Parks v. Rodgers, 176 N.J. at 502. So if a material fact in a Summary Judgment Motion is based upon credibility of a witness then the matter should not be decided on Summary Judgment. The matter should move on to trial for the finder of fact (usually the jury unless it is bench trial) to make the decision on whether the witness is credible on the fact or facts in question.
This blog entry certainly does not address every rule, case and/or issue that can present itself in a Summary Judgment Motion. It is a basic overview of what Summary Judgment are and how they are utilized by the parties to a lawsuit and the court. The attorneys with the Law Office of Charles H. Nugent, Jr., regularly deal with Summary Judgment Motions and are always available to discuss them or any legal issue.
- Justin Brake, Esquire