SUPREME COURT REVAMPS KEY LEGAL STANDARD
12/31/2020 Jim Saunders
TALLAHASSEE --- The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday revamped a key legal standard as its conservative majority continued to show a willingness to undo previous decisions that have guided the state’s courts.
Justices, in a 6-1 ruling, decided to scrap a state standard for determining whether lower-court judges should grant summary judgment in civil lawsuits. The Supreme Court said Florida should align with a federal summary-judgment standard --- an approach backed by business groups that have pushed for ways to cut down on litigation.
"This is the Holy Grail of lawsuit reform in Florida," William Large, president of the business-backed Florida Justice Reform Institute, said in a prepared statement after the Supreme Court issued the ruling.
Summary judgment generally involves judges being able to decide lawsuits before they go to jury trials. The issue in Thursday’s ruling dealt with the standards that judges should use in determining whether to grant summary judgment.
Justice Jorge Labarga, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that the change “discards long-settled law” in Florida and will lead to judges applying a less-restrictive federal standard in making decisions about summary judgment. The ruling, he said, “infringes upon the jury’s sacred role” in deciding lawsuits.
“The moving party’s intent in filing a motion for summary judgment is to dispose of a litigant’s claim on the basis that no genuine issue of material fact exists. For decades, Florida courts have been judicious in granting summary judgment because, as observed by one of our district courts, ‘a motion for summary judgment is not a substitute for a trial on the merits,’” Labarga wrote. “However, when the more relaxed federal interpretation is applied to a motion for summary judgment, the trial court’s analysis goes far beyond evaluating whether an issue of material fact is in dispute. Instead, the trial court assumes a role traditionally reserved for a jury and engages in weighing evidence.”
But the court’s majority said that in making the change, “we reaffirm the bedrock principle that summary judgment is not a substitute for the trial of disputed fact issues.”
“Our goals are simply to improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system, to relieve parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation, and to save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution,” said the opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muniz, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans.
Thursday’s opinion was one in a series of rulings that have reflected a major philosophical shift on the Supreme Court since January 2019, when longtime Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince stepped down because of a mandatory retirement age.
Pariente, Lewis and Quince had been part of a relatively liberal majority that long frustrated state Republican leaders and business groups. Their retirements opened the door to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointing replacements who have created a solid conservative majority.
Other examples of the philosophical shift include the court scrapping a longstanding legal requirement of reviewing death sentences to determine if they are “disproportionate” punishment; ruling that unanimous jury recommendations are not necessary before death sentences can be imposed; and tossing out a decades-old standard about circumstantial evidence in criminal cases.
Thursday’s opinion on the summary-judgment standard will change a rule for the state courts system and will take effect May 1. It came after justices asked attorneys in an Osceola County fatal traffic-accident case to submit briefs about whether the summary-judgment standard should be changed.
After opening up the issue, the Supreme Court received numerous friend-of-the court briefs, with business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Health Care Association backing a change to the federal standard.
“As frequently named defendants in Florida lawsuits, the members of the U.S. Chamber and Florida Chamber have struggled with the inequity and inefficacy of Florida’s summary judgment standard,” lawyers for the chamber groups wrote in a joint brief in December 2019. “Since it was first announced 53 years ago … Florida’s standard has prevented the resolution of both meritless and meritorious litigation prior to lengthy and expensive trials, needlessly increasing costs for Florida’s business industry and consumers.”
But groups representing plaintiffs’ attorneys raised concerns about changing the standard and suggested the issue be sent to a rules committee to take input.
“The issues before this (Supreme) Court are of upmost importance to the members of our organizations, who advocate for their clients to have the right to jury trial preserved in all cases, such that this right should only be taken away in the pre-trial process after having a full and fair opportunity to oppose motions for summary judgment,” the Florida Justice Association and the American Association for Justice wrote in a joint brief in June.