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The Summary Judgment Standard & Bankruptcy

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The opportunity for summary judgment (either partial or complete) is one of the great benefits of the federal rules, and one of the strongest reasons for parties in state court actions to remove actions to federal court, if at all possible.  Many state courts, including the State of New Jersey, permit summary judgment, and have modeled the rules on the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.  However, summary judgment is not always adhered to as rigorously in the state courts as it is in the federal system and the results tend to be very judge-specific.

A bankruptcy court may grant summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), made applicable to adversary proceedings pursuant to Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 7056, “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Id. At the summary judgment stage, the role of the court “is not to weigh evidence, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Knauss v. Dwek, 289 F. Supp. 2d 546, 549 (D.N.J. 2003) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)). The court must construe facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Am. Marine Rail NJ, LLC v. City of Bayonne, 289 F. Supp. 2d 569, 578 (D.N.J. 2003) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986)). “Only evidence admissible at trial may be used to test a summary judgment motion. Thus, evidence whose foundation is deficient must be excluded from consideration.” Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 471 (3d Cir. 1989) (citations omitted).

Are There Disputed Facts?

The moving party must make an initial showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Knauss, 289 F. Supp. 2d at 549 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to “‘make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of [every] element essential to the party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.’” Cardenas v. Massey, 269 F.3d 251, 254-55 (3d Cir. 2001) (questioned on other grounds) (quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322). The “mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48 (emphasis in original). An issue of fact is “genuine” if a reasonable juror could return a verdict for the non-moving party. See id. at 248.

Inferences are Drawn in the Non-Moving Party’s Favor

Furthermore, a material fact is determined by the substantive law at issue. See Crane v. Yurick, 287 F. Supp. 2d 553, 556 (D.N.J. 2003) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). A fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Id. Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (citation omitted). However, even if material facts remain disputed, summary judgment may be proper if, after all inferences are drawn in the non-moving party’s favor, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. at 248-50. Such a judgment is appropriate “as a matter of law” when the non-moving party has failed to make an adequate showing on an essential element of his or her case, as to which he or she has the burden of proof. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23. When one party moves the court for summary judgment, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 54(c) and 56, taken together, permit the court to enter summary judgment on behalf of the non-movant, even if the non-movant has not filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. See Peiffer v. Lebanon Sch. Dist., 673 F. Supp. 147, 151-52 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citation omitted).

On the other hand, a court must deny a motion for summary judgment when a genuine issue of material fact remains to be tried, or where the moving party is not entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

A well-crafted summary judgment motion can be an excellent opportunity to introduce the judge to the facts of the case, but not if it is coupled with an argument that is sure to lose and detract from your credibility going forward. There are numerous difficult tactical choices a party must make before deciding to move under FRCP 56. To reach the right decisions it is important to plan ahead and have experienced counsel at your side.  Contact the law firm of Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens & Cammarota, LLP to help guide the way.


David L. Stevens

I have a passion for what I do. There are few things I enjoy more than helping good people and viable businesses find solutions to overwhelming debt.

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