Effective May 1, 2021, the Florida Supreme Court has adopted the federal Summary Judgment standard, and significantly amended Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 to incorporate the majority of the language found in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The new rule governs the adjudication of any summary judgment motion decided after May 1st, including in pending cases.
The Florida Supreme Court’s opinion reiterates that Florida’s summary judgment standard shall now be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard. Id. By adopting the federal summary judgment standard, Florida courts must be guided by the United States Supreme Court’s “Celotex trilogy,” as well as the overall body of case law interpreting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The “transplanting of federal rule 56” into the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure “brings with it the ‘old soil’ of case law interpreting that rule.”
The new standard recognizes that “summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of rules aimed at the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.The Florida Supreme Court has recognized three key features of the amended summary judgment standard.
First, the summary judgment standard is interpreted the same as the standard on directed verdict. Thus, under both the summary judgment standard and the directed verdict standard, the court’s focus is on whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require the case to be submitted to the jury. As a result, “the substantive evidentiary burden of proof that the respective parties must meet at trial is the only touchstone that accurately measures whether a genuine issue of material fact exists to be tried.”
Second, a party moving for summary judgment that does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial can obtain summary judgment without disproving the nonmovant’s case. As a result, if the party moving for summary judgment does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial on a particular issue, the moving party’s initial burden on summary judgment is “not onerous,” is “far from stringent,” and “can be regularly discharged with ease.”
The Florida Supreme Court illustrates the summary judgment burden of proof with the following example: “[I]f the nonmoving party must prove X to prevail [at trial], the moving party at summary judgment can either produce evidence that X is not so or point out that the nonmoving party lacks the evidence to prove X.” Thus, a party moving for summary judgment is not required to set forth evidence when the nonmovant bears the burden of persuasion at trial.
Third, the correct test for determining whether a genuine factual dispute exists is “whether the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” As a result, if “opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” As a consequence, summary judgment in Florida can no longer be avoided by asserting that the existence of any 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.”
Several important procedural changes have also resulted from the amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510. A motion for summary judgment must be filed at least 40 days before the date of a summary judgment hearing, and the nonmovant’s response must be filed at least 20 days before the hearing. Id. A party’s factual assertions must be supported by citation to specific parts of materials in the record. Id. A trial court’s order on summary judgment must state the reasons for its decision with enough specificity to provide useful guidance to the parties and to allow for appellate review. Id.