One of the toughest lessons an attorney learns is that the practice of law has very little to do with the practice of justice. In civil litigation this is especially true when you see cases with little to no merit settle for a dollar figure that is more about the economic realities of taking a case through trial than a defendant’s liability or a plaintiff’s genuine damages.
Inevitably, the question arises, “how much will it cost to try the case?” If the answer is, say, $30,000, and the plaintiff will take $20,000, some companies view that as a $10,000 win. I’ve even seen people try to squeeze pre-discovery settlement money out of non-liable defendants by calling it a “peace dividend.” Now that’s chutzpah.
Perhaps the most frustrating reality in civil litigation, however, is the reluctance of some judges to grant motions for summary judgment. For those unfamiliar with the term, summary judgment is when the undisputed facts allow a lawsuit, or a portion thereof, to be decided by the judge shy of trial. The usual context is on a motion by the defendant which basically says, “even if you believe the facts as alleged by the plaintiff, he can’t win when the law is applied, so dismiss it now and save us all the hassle.”
The value of summary judgment is obvious: cases that need not go further are disposed of expeditiously, freeing up dockets and saving litigants (and taxpayers) time, effort, and money. A side benefit occurs when the defeated plaintiff’s attorney thinks twice about clogging the court system again with a similarly flawed claim.
But, how reluctant are some judges to grant summary judgment?
This is a true story. I once had a case where we filed a motion for summary judgment because the Plaintiff’s deposition testimony mirrored the Defendant’s as to how the incident occurred. This means there was no dispute of fact for a jury to consider, and the court’s job was to make a decision. Our motion said as much and highlighted the applicable statute. The Plaintiff’s opposition agreed that there was no dispute of fact and that the case hinged on interpretation of a statute. Result? Denied, without explanation.
Next, we did what litigators rarely do: we filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which essentially asks a judge to admit he was wrong. As you might expect, most judges don’t take too kindly to that suggestion. Result? Denied, without explanation.
Eventually, the case went to trial before a different judge where the same undisputed facts were established during Plaintiff’s case. After Plaintiff rested, we made a motion for judgment on the same exact basis cited in our prior pleadings. Result? Defense judgment. Who knows the amount of lost time and resources, but it was in the thousands of dollars for the parties and the taxpayers.
So what’s the answer? Here are three quick suggestions:
Cases should be assigned to one judge for the duration of the litigation. Logically, that judge will become more familiar with the facts and issues of the case and, when warranted, more inclined to grant summary judgment. It works well in the federal courts and in the few state jurisdictions that try it. It also promotes the interests of judicial economy and efficiency.
Judges need help to wade through all the motions that get filed, summary judgment and otherwise. No one is more important in that role than law clerks. Judges with complex civil litigation tracks, for example, should have at least two law clerks to help deal with the filings. If even a small number of cases get kicked, the resulting savings in judicial resources would justify the additional salaries.
It’s not easy granting summary judgments. It takes guts. It takes telling a plaintiff that, despite how sad or compelling the undisputed facts, the law does not permit him to recover damages. It takes telling a plaintiff that sometimes her “day in court” is the motions hearing at which the judge is required to rule that the case cannot proceed. It’s also realizing that a defendant’s right to have the case end at the appropriate stage is as important as a plaintiff’s right to take her case through trial. Ultimately, it also takes not being afraid that an appellate court may disagree.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several serious cases dismissed via summary judgment by judges who had the time and inclination to do so. And, by and large, Maryland is blessed with a solid judiciary.
Current economic realities, however, mean all governmental entities, including the courts, need to do more with less. In other words, multiple law clerks aren’t coming anytime soon and one-judge tracking systems may be slow to develop. Despite these hurdles, the underlying goal of our legal system remains the same: Justice. In that regard, summary judgment is an essential tool to enhance the efficiency and fairness of the process by which we pursue that goal.
About the Author
Jason Beaulieu is a founding partner of Timmerman Beaulieu Hinkle & Esworthy, LLC. Jason’s practice focuses on complex civil litigation in Maryland and the District of Columbia, with a focus on insurance defense, school liability, construction litigation, and the retail/hospitality industry. He also advises individuals and businesses of all sizes on general business and risk management issues. He can be contacted by phone at (410) 649-4440 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.