The Florida Supreme Court amended Florida’s summary judgment rule last year to closely resemble the Federal summary judgment rule. Even so, recent decisions from Florida’s appellate courts discuss several important distinctions between the Florida and Federal rules that exist despite the amendment.
The Nonmoving Party Must File a Response
In Lloyd S. Meisels, P.A. v. Dobrofsky, 47 Fla. L. Weekly D 1239 (Fla. 4th DCA June 8, 2022), the Fourth District Court of Appeal recently held that a party opposing a summary judgment must file a response to a motion for summary judgment at least 20 days before the summary judgment hearing.
Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510(c)(5) is a subdivision not found in the Federal summary judgment rule. Because subsection (c)(5) states that “the nonmovant must serve a response,” filing a response is mandatory. The Florida Supreme Court established scheduling requirements on summary judgment “to reduce gamesmanship and surprise and to allow for more deliberative consideration of summary judgment motions.” The Fourth DCA held that requiring a response serves the new rule’s intent to require the parties to take definite, detailed positions on summary judgment motions.
Thus, under the new rule, the trial court has the discretion to consider any facts not addressed by the party opposing summary judgment as undisputed for the purposes of the motion.
As a result, a party opposing summary judgment “pursues a risky course by waiving at the record, leaving the trial court to mine for nuggets of triable fact that would preclude summary judgment.” Nor is the trial court “required to comb through the record to find some reason to deny a motion for summary judgment.”
Instead, the party opposing summary judgment has the responsibility to direct the trial court’s attention to specific triable facts. Otherwise, the trial court has the discretion to only consider the materials cited by the parties in the summary judgment motion and response.
A Summary Judgment Hearing Must Be Held
The Florida Rules of Civil Procedure have always required a hearing to be held on a motion for summary judgment. The Florida Supreme Court decided to maintain the requirement for a summary judgment hearing, even though Federal courts often decide summary judgment motions without hearings.
As a result, the scheduling requirements on summary judgment are tied to the date of the summary judgment hearing. A summary judgment motion must be filed at least 40 days before the summary judgment hearing, and the nonmovant’s response must be filed at least 20 days before the hearing.
Trial Court Must State The Reasons For Its Ruling on the Record
The final major difference between Florida’s new summary judgment rule and the federal rule is Florida’s requirement that the trial court judge state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion.
The Florida Supreme Court enacted this requirement to ensure that Florida’s trial courts would “embrace the Federal summary judgment standard in practice and not just on paper.” The trial court must state the reasons for its decision with enough specificity to provide useful guidance to the parties, and if necessary, to allow for appellate review.
In Jones v. Ervolino, 2022 Fla. App. LEXIS 3413 (Fla. 3d DCA May 18, 2022), the Third District Court of Appeal recently reversed summary judgment because the trial court did not state the reasons for its ruling on the record. A trial court’s conclusory statement that there is or is not a genuine dispute as to a material fact is not enough to comply with the new rule. Thus, although the Third District noted that trial judges need not write lengthy opinions, they still must take reasonable steps to articulate the reasons for granting or denying the motion.
It is true that Florida has adopted the vast majority of the Federal summary judgment rule, and that decisions interpreting the Federal rule will provide guidance for interpreting the rule in Florida. Even so, it is important to understand the ways that Florida summary judgment practice will remain different from Federal courts.