Seriously. New Supreme Court Ruling Says Summary Judgment Orders MUST Comply with Rule 56.04. Part 2 of 2
Note: This blog post is an excerpt from an article published in the October 2014 issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal and is reproduced here with the TBJ’s permission.
As discussed in my first blog post on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Mary C. Smith v. UHS of Lakeside Inc., that case provides significant standards with which a trial court must now comply when issuing an order granting or denying summary judgment. This blog post analyzes the principles behind Smith and considers its potential ramifications.
Smith emphasizes that consideration of the principle of judicial independence should be key when resolving issues related to a trial court’s lack of compliance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. “In the final analysis, the ultimate concern is the fairness and independence of the trial court’s judgment.”
Judges have the duty — and must have the ability — to decide each case by objectively evaluating the facts and fairly applying the law without outside influence or pressure. Any indication or appearance that a judge is deciding a case based on some outside influence undermines the public’s confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the courts. We typically correlate an independent and impartial judiciary with judges who are not subject to influence from the other branches of government, are not beholden to private parties or special interest groups, are not driven by partisan interests or by self-interest, and who are not pressured by the media.
Smith emphasizes that consideration of the principle of judicial independence should be key when resolving issues related to a trial court’s lack of compliance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04.
The Smith opinion highlights a different, but equally important, touchstone of judicial independence, namely the analytical process by which judges arrive at their decisions. A court’s unique job is to decide cases solely on the basis of the application of legal principles to the relevant facts established by the evidence presented in court by the litigants. It is the judge alone who is entrusted to make those decisions fairly, objectively, and knowledgeably. Judicial decision-making may not be abdicated or delegated. Accordingly, every judicial decision must not only be, but must also transparently be, the judge’s own work product.
The requirement that a Rule 56.04 order include an explanation of the court’s analytical process is imposed as a way to make manifest that the court carefully considered the facts, the claims, the arguments, and the applicable law and then decided the case based on its own reasoning. When you come right down to it, the explanation required by Rule 56.04 is judicial independence incarnate.
… every judicial decision must not only be, but must also transparently be, the judge’s own work product.
There is an issue that the Supreme Court did not face in Smith, but which needs to be considered in light of the Smith decision. Some trial courts have adopted local rules to establish timelines and deadlines for filing and responding to motions, including summary judgment motions. Some of those local rules also provide that in the absence of a timely response “the motion shall be granted.” Such a rule ostensibly leaves the trial judge with no choice but to grant a motion when no written response is filed. In other words, it requires that the motion be granted automatically, without judicial consideration of the merits.
The automatic grant of a motion that is not disputed may make sense when the motion is one for, say, an extension of time to answer interrogatories. A decision on that motion does not usually call for the resolution of a question of law that goes to the merits of a case.
But an automatic grant does not make sense in the context of a motion for summary judgment. A motion for summary judgment is a potentially dispositive motion; the grant of summary judgment is a decision on the merits of a claim. For that reason, the governing Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 56, requires the trial court to make a merits-based analysis before granting or denying a summary judgment. Even when the parties agree that summary judgment or partial summary judgment is warranted, the court must still analyze the matter and arrive at its own decision. The fact that a motion for summary judgment is uncontested or even agreed to does not necessarily mean that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Only the court can make that call, which requires the court independently to analyze whether the undisputed facts are material, what law applies, and whether that law entitles the movant to a judgment. For the court not to engage in an independent analysis is tantamount to abdication of its core judicial function.
Although the validity of an automatic or default grant of summary judgment was not before the Court in Smith, the holding and analysis in Smith strongly suggest local rules requiring (“shall grant”) the granting of summary judgment in the absence of a timely-filed opposition are inconsistent with Rule 56, and, in particular, with Rule 56.04. On its face, such a local rule is inconsistent with the Rule 56.04 requirement that, before granting a motion for summary judgment, the court must affirmatively and independently find that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and must make a reasoned finding that a judgment in favor of the movant is warranted under applicable law.
In Smith the Supreme Court noted, as a general principle, that when a local rule is inconsistent with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04, Rule 56.04 will prevail. Because of the inconsistency between Rule 56.04, which requires a merits-based analysis, and local rules which mandate a grant of summary judgment based solely on a procedural default, Smith should at least provide an impetus for re-examination of the local rules. Any local rules that are inconsistent with Rule 56.04 as now developed in Smith should perhaps be reformed to exclude summary judgment motions from the rules’ default remedy for failure to comply with a deadline.
In light of the Smith standards, it would appear that, when an uncontested motion for summary judgment is granted, the court must still independently address the merits of the motion and must either prepare its own order articulating the legal grounds for its decision…
In those judicial districts where such local rules exist, when no timely response is filed to a motion for summary judgment, the practice has been for the movant’s counsel to prepare an order stating that the motion for summary judgment is granted because it was unopposed. The Smith reasoning would also strongly suggest that at least the practice of relying on counsel-prepared orders in that situation is in need of reform.
It is not enough to grant a summary judgment motion without articulating the substantive legal basis for doing so. Even if counsel for the movant were to draft an order purporting to state the legal grounds for granting the motion — presumably the grounds advanced by counsel in support of the motion — that would not cure the problem. That approach is directly contrary to the Smith holding that, before counsel can be asked to prepare the order, the court must have stated the legal grounds on which it is granting the motion for summary judgment. In light of the Smith standards, it would appear that, when an uncontested motion for summary judgment is granted, the court must still independently address the merits of the motion and must either prepare its own order articulating the legal grounds for its decision or, if the court asks counsel to prepare an order, it must first state the legal grounds for its ruling in one of the ways outlined in Smith.