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Summary judgment is a decision made by a court. A judge makes a decision based on legal pleadings presented to him and finds that there is no need for trial. SJ may be granted on all issues, or be granted on some issues and denied on the rest of the issues (the latter is known as "partial summary judgment").
To obtain a summary judgment, one makes a request to the Judge (called a "Motion"). The party asking for the ruling is known as the "movant" and the other party is the "non-moving" party.
Franchisees often claim that denial of summary judgment indicates that the court believes the non-movants. This is simply not true: the court is required to believe the non-movants at the SJ stage, but this is not true at trial. Moreover, denial of SJ may simply be a reflection of a judge who is reluctant to deny the non-moving party their day in court.
When granted, summary judgment has the effect of denying the non-moving party it’s day in court, and for that reason judges are often reluctant to grant a motion for SJ.
On the other hand, judges are aware of the expense of defending against frivolous claims or the expense incurred by plaintiffs who are required to litigate where there is a foregone conclusion as a matter of law (In fact, in both England and the US, summary judgment was originally only available to plaintiffs). Prof. Arthur Miller is one of a number of scholars who argue that courts are too eager to use SJ (pdf) as a case management tool and thereby usurp the province of the jury.
At the federal level, SJ is governed by Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 56, and there are 3 key decisions of the US Supreme Court (all from 1986) setting forth the standard for SJ:
In Celotex , the Court noted the purpose of SJ in securing a “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of lawsuits. But there is a high standard for SJ, in that there must be no genuine issue of fact. The judge is expected to assume as true the pleadings of the non-moving party; if on those pleadings a jury could find for the non-moving party, then summary judgment should be denied.
As the Anderson court noted: “[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Some commentators criticize the idea of believing the nonmovant, and one has called the statement "folly" [James Duane, 4 Greatest Myths About Summary Judgment, 52 Wash & Lee L.R. 1523, 1590 (1995)]
More recently, the court reiterated in Reeves v. Sanderson [530 U.S. 133 (2000)] that the court could not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, and in Beard v. Banks [548 U.S. 521 (2006)] the court stated that SJ was both the absence of material fact and a showing by the movant that he is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
A judicial decision regarding SJ may indeed sometimes indicate how the court is leaning with regard to substance, much as judicial statements during conferences may indicate how the court is viewing the case. But in a ruling denying SJ, such indications should be taken with caution; a denial of SJ is a holding that there exist triable issues of fact---all else is dicta .
Controversial aspects of SJ include (1) whether a court may appropriately deny SJ where there are no material issues of fact and (2) the preclusive effects of SJ, but we do not address those issues here and those interested may refer to an excellent article in the Fall 2002 Hofstra Law Review (31 Hof. L.R. 91 ), which also discusses the history of SJ going back to English law and noting the waxing and waning of judicial granting of SJ in the United States. Also, remember that state laws may vary from the federal rules.
One interesting exception to the reluctance to grant summary judgment is the California courts which favor summary judgment in First Amendment cases, as discussed elsewhere on BMM.