New Florida summary judgment standard now in effect
Big changes affecting summary judgment motions are now active in Florida state courts.
On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court, on its own motion, made a significant change to Florida law by adopting the summary judgment standard applied by federal courts, as described by three 1986 United States Supreme Court decisions: 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). See In re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, 309 So. 3d 192, 195 (Fla. 2020) [In re Amendments I].
On April 29, 2021, following public comment, the Court issued a further opinion explaining that it would be implementing the changed summary judgment standard by replacing language in the previous summary judgment rule, Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, with language from the federal summary judgment rule, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. In re Amendments To Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, __ So. 3d __, No. SC20-1490, 2021 WL 1684095, at *1 (Fla. Apr. 29, 2021) [In re Amendments II]. This further underscores the degree to which the Court intends the Florida standard to mirror the standard applied in federal courts.
The Court ordered the change effective as of May 1, 2021. In re Amendments I, 309 So. 3d at 195. The effective date of May 1st means that the new rule governs all court summary judgment rulings made on or after that date, including in pending lawsuits. In re Amendments II, 2021 WL 1684095, at *4. To the extent a case is pending where a summary judgment motion was denied under the old version of the rule, the Court stated the parties should have an opportunity to renew the motion under the new version. Id. The Court further stated that courts with pending, but undecided, motions should allow litigants the opportunity to amend to address the new standard. Id.
Significant Differences Between Federal and State Rules Prior to Amendment
Prior to this change, there were significant differences between the Florida and federal standards.
Of particular relevance, under the old rule Florida courts generally took a broad view of what could be considered a “genuine issue of material fact,” such 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.” In re Amendments I, 309 So. 3d at 193 (emphasis in original) (quoting Bruce J. Berman & Peter D. Webster, Berman's Florida Civil Procedure § 1.510:5 (2020 ed.)); see also Piedra v. City of N. Bay Vill., 193 So. 3d 48, 51 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) (“If the record on appeal reveals the merest possibility of genuine issues of material fact, or even the slightest doubt in this respect, the summary judgment must be reversed.”); Krol v. City of Orlando, 778 So. 2d 490, 492 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001) (“We must consider the evidence contained in the record, including any supporting affidavits, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the Appellants, and if the slightest doubt exists, the summary judgment must be reversed.”).
In contrast, federal courts had rejected the “slightest doubt” approach, and held that summary judgment could not be denied based on a “mere … scintilla” of opposing evidence or “metaphysical doubt” as to the material facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252 (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.”); Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 (“When the moving party has carried its burden …, its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”). Instead, the judge ruling on the motion is to consider “whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [opposing party] on the evidence presented,” i.e., “whether reasonable jurors could find by a preponderance of the evidence that the plaintiff is entitled to a verdict….” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.
Florida courts also applied a strict standard on the moving party on issues where the opposing party had the burden of proof, requiring the movant to present evidence that conclusively disproved the adversary’s position, instead of pointing out the absence of evidence on the issue. E.g., Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40, 43 (Fla. 1966) (“As this court and other appellate courts have repeatedly held, the burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact is upon the moving party.”); City of Cocoa v. Leffler, 762 So. 2d 1052, 1055 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000) (“The party moving for summary judgment has the burden to prove conclusively the nonexistence of any genuine issue of material fact.”).
Federal courts had also rejected this proposition, permitting a moving party to meet its initial burden by “pointing out …that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323–24 (1986) (“We find 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.”) (emphasis by court).
While the full impact of the changes will not be known for some time, the new rule has the potential to increase the number of summary judgment motions filed asserting an “absence of evidence” supporting the opposing position, increase the number of motions granted where there is only a “scintilla” of evidence supporting the opposing party, and provide more discretion for the trial judge in determining whether “fair-minded” or “reasonable” jurors could weigh the evidence in favor of the non-moving party.
Many interesting issues remain, such as:
- the extent to which Florida courts will rely on federal summary judgment cases to interpret the new standard, and the extent to which Florida federal courts sitting in diversity will find their decisions controlled by Florida appellate court rulings on appeals from summary judgments;
- the degree to which Florida decisions interpreting the prior rule will continue to color Florida courts’ interpretation of the new rule (such as the numerous opinions stating that “summary judgment procedures should be applied with special caution in negligence actions,” E.g., Holl, 191 So. 2d at 46);
- the possibility that individual circuit courts or judges will adopt different procedural requirements for the format of summary judgment filings, like the differing requirements of the Middle and Southern District of Florida; and
- whether the new rule will result in a noticeable increase in the amount of summary judgment motions that are granted.
What is clear, however, is that understanding and applying the new rule will be an important facet of Florida civil litigation from this point forward.