Summary Judgment in California
Summary judgment, when possible, is a powerful strategy that can disarm the case against a defendant or shorten the path to an agreeable settlement. While summary judgment is not always possible or advisable, it is worth exploring in certain cases. Below, we will lay out the application and strategy of summary judgment motion in California, as well as alternative actions.
The Adjudication and Statutory Authority of Summary Judgement
Summary Judgement is a statute under CA Civil Code of Procedure section 473(c). This section includes the following description:
The motion for summary judgment shall be granted if all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.
Summary Judgment allows a judgment to be entered without the proceedings of a full trial. CA Civil Code Of Procedure Section 473(c) (f) restricts summary adjudication motions to four kinds of issues:
A party may move for adjudication as to one or more causes of action within an action, one or more affirmative defenses, one or more claims for damages, or one or more issues of duty, if that party contends that the cause of action has no merit or that there is no affirmative defense thereto, or that there is no merit to an affirmative defense as to any cause of action, or both, or that there is no merit to defendants either owed or did not owe a duty to the plaintiff or plaintiffs. A motion for summary adjudication shall be granted only if it completely disposes of a cause of action, an affirmative defense, a claim for damages, or an issue of duty.
Summary adjudication and summary judgment are applicable in different situations.
Summary adjudication is the course of action in the following situations:
- There is not admissible evidence that proves that the other party has the burden of proof
- There is no issue of material fact found from the admissible evidence for the matters the party has the burden of proof
- A reasonable jury would not accept the other party’s argument on a factual issue that is essential to the opposing party’s defense or claim
- A reasonable jury would not find the evidence clear or convincing in proving malice, fraud, oppression, or approval
When to Seek Early Summary Judgement Motion:
A summary judgment motion may be sought before discovery is complete. However, this effort may be counterproductive as courts can be reluctant to rule on such a motion before everything has been addressed through the discovery process.
If evidence is found after a summary judgment motion has been granted, the evidence, depending on its relevance and application, could be used to set aside the grant of summary judgment. If the new evidence is material to the case and could not have been produced earlier, a motion to set aside a summary judgment may be filed under CA Code of Civil Procedure Section 657. Aguilar v Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 C4th 826, 858.
Unless ordered otherwise, motions for summary judgment cannot be heard more than 30 days prior to the trial date. CA Code of Civil Procedure Section 437 (a); Robinson v Woods (2008) 168 CA4th 1258, 1268.
Burden of Proof
The moving party has the burden of the following:
- Production (CA Evidence Code Section 110)
- Persuasion (Aguilar v Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 C4th 826, 850)
- Proof (CA Evidence Code Section 115).
Meaning, the moving party yields the responsibility of producing sufficient evidence and persuading the judge that there is no triable issue.
Additional Notes on Summary Judgement
Summary judgement may also be suitable if there are no disputed facts among all parties involved, and therefore the sole judgement before the court is one of law. In such cases, the trial court must hear and decide the disputed legal issues. See Blanco v Baxter Healthcare Corp. (2008) 158 CA4th 1039 (federal law preemption defense decided on summary judgment motion.)
Additionally, in the case that facts are not being disputed, the parties may forgo the filing of competing summary judgement motions and seek leave of court, allowing for trial based on the agreed upon facts. This type of motion is less rigid and does not need to comply with the required proceedings of summary judgement motions.