Summary judgment

A summary judgment is a legal decision in a case made when one party to a lawsuit requests summary judgment by pre-trial motion. The idea behind summary judgment is that if a fact is undisputed then there is no need for a trial on that issue. If there are enough undisputed facts then the pleading of the party may be sufficient as a matter of law.

The moving party submits various documents with the motion; these may include depositions, admitted truth of facts by both parties, documents received during discovery, contracts, emails, letters, and certified government documents. The parties also usually present legal memoranda to the court to support or oppose the underlying law that allows the moving party to make the summary judgment motion and seek swift judicial determination of the dispute. The court may allow for oral argument if the judge wishes to question the parties on the issues before the court.

Summary judgment is awarded if the moving (or cross-moving) party can successfully argue that the undisputed facts and the law make it clear that it is not possible for the other party to prevail if the matter proceeds to a trial. If there is doubt at this stage, the court must assume that the party opposing the summary judgment will prevail on the doubtful points; this preserves the opposing party or parties' right to a trial and to have the judge or jury review all the evidence and decide the underlying factual basis of the lawsuit. In other words, if a trial could result in the jury (or judge in a bench trial) deciding in the favor of the opposing party, a summary judgment is inappropriate. Sometimes a court may award partial summary judgment when one of the causes of action is undisputed on the facts, or if there is not satisfactory opposing evidence that puts the allegations of the moving party in question.

Partly because of workload issues, it is not uncommon for the summary judgments of lower level US courts in complex cases to be overturned on appeal. It is also a common procedure used to attempt to gain a quick resolution to a legal issue when there are few or no disputed facts, and in this way it is similar to a declaratory judgment.

Proceedings for summary judgments in United States district courts are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

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