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Florida Supreme Court Adopts Federal Summary Judgment Standard

In Short 

The Situation: The Florida Supreme Court considered whether and how to amend Florida's summary judgment rule to comport with the federal summary judgment standard, which is easier to satisfy.  

The Result: The Florida Supreme Court amended Florida's summary judgment rule to largely adopt the language of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.  

Looking Ahead: The amendment of Florida's summary judgment rule is designed to promote efficiency by weeding out unsupported claims early in the litigation. Indirectly, it likely will discourage Florida state court litigants from asserting weak claims. Parties in Florida state court litigation should consider whether the amended rule makes it more likely that summary judgment will be granted for or against them, and engage in discovery and settlement negotiations accordingly.

The Prior State of the Law 

Before the amendment, Florida's summary judgment rule and Federal Rule 56 received very different interpretations. Courts interpreting the earlier version of Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 had insisted that the moving party must "disprove the nonmovant's theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact," with "any competent evidence creating an issue of fact, however credible or incredible, substantial or trivial, … so long as the 'slightest doubt' is raised." In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 309 So. 2d 192, 193 (Fla. 2020) (citations omitted).  

By contrast, the federal summary judgment standard does not require the moving party to negate its opponent's claim but allows summary judgment against a nonmovant who bears the burden of persuasion when the nonmovant "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case … Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Moreover, the federal standard makes it more difficult for a nonmovant to avoid summary judgment: The nonmovant's evidence must be not only competent but "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).  

Thus, to defeat summary judgment under the federal standard, the nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).  

The Florida Supreme Court Amends Florida Rule 1.510 

On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court amended Florida Rule 1.510 to state that "[t]he summary judgment standard provided for in this rule shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard articulated in" Celotex, Anderson, and Matsushita. See In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, 309 So. 2d at 196. The Court explained that it was adopting the federal standard because that standard "is more rational, more fair, and more consistent with the structure and purpose of" the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, id. at 194, which aim "to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action," id. (quoting Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010). The Court delayed the amendment's effective date to May 1, 2021, to allow public comment on whether the Court should in fact adopt the federal summary judgment standard and, if so, how it should accomplish that result. Id. 

On April 29, 2021, after receiving comments, the Florida Supreme Court further amended Florida Rule 1.510 "to largely adopt the text of [F]ederal [R]ule 56 as a replacement for [Florida] [R]ule 1.510," with the effective date remaining May 1, 2021. See In re Amendments to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, No. SC20-1490, 2021 WL 1684095, at *1, *2 (Fla. Apr. 29, 2021). The Court reasoned that largely adopting the text of Federal Rule 56 "makes it more likely that Florida's adoption of the federal summary judgment standard will take root[,]" "will provide greater certainty and eliminate unproductive speculation and litigation over differences between those rules[,]" and will allow "Florida litigants and judges [to] get the full benefit of the large body of case law interpreting and applying [F]ederal [R]ule 56." Id. at *2. The Court also moved the amended rule's textual references to Celotex, Anderson, and Matsushita to the Notes explaining the amendment, replacing them in the text with a directive that Florida's amended rule "shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard." Id. at *3, *7.  

There are two key differences between the amended Florida Rule 1.510 and Federal Rule 56. The first is that Federal Rule 56 says the court should state on the record its reasons for granting or denying a summary judgment motion, while the amended Florida Rule 1.510 says that the court shall do so. Id. at *4. The second is that Federal Rule 56 provides only that a summary judgment motion may be filed until 30 days following the close of discovery, while the amended Florida Rule 1.510 contains unique timing provisions keyed to a summary judgment hearing. Id. 

The Florida Supreme Court provided for broad application of its amended rule. The effective date of the amended rule remains May 1, 2021, and so the amended rule "govern[s] the adjudication of any summary judgment motion decided on or after" that date. Id. But the Court also invited parties to file renewed summary judgment motions where summary judgment was denied under the pre-amendment rule, and to revise their filings where a summary judgment motion remains pending or on rehearing. Id. As a result, parties and courts should begin receiving the benefits of the efficiency-promoting amendment immediately. 

Likely Effects of Amending Florida Rule 1.510 

Florida's amended rule should result in more summary judgments in Florida state courts. More parties will pursue summary judgment in those courts, and parties opposing summary judgment will need to put forth stronger arguments and evidence to defeat summary judgment under Florida's amended rule. Parties also may be discouraged in the first instance from bringing unsupported claims in Florida state court because such claims would be vulnerable under the amended rule.  

The increased probability that Florida state courts will grant summary judgment should influence pre-trial settlement negotiations, because parties bearing the burden of persuasion will know that they need evidence to avoid summary judgment. Targeted discovery directed at the key weaknesses in an opposing party's case will become an even more important tool in facilitating the resolution of Florida state court litigation.  

Jones Day submitted comments and presented argument to the Florida Supreme Court in support of Florida's amended summary judgment rule.

Three Key Takeaways 

  1. The Florida Supreme Court has amended Florida's summary judgment rule to incorporate the easier-to-satisfy federal summary judgment standard.
  2. The amended summary judgment rule should lead to more summary judgments in Florida state court litigation. Relatedly, the amended rule will encourage parties to seek summary judgment in Florida state courts more often and will discourage Florida state court litigants from asserting weak claims that have little chance of surviving scrutiny under the new summary judgment standard.
  3. Parties in Florida state court litigation should consider whether Florida's amended summary judgment rule increases the likelihood of summary judgment in their cases, and conduct discovery and drive settlement negotiations accordingly.

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