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What is Summary Judgment?

In any given trial, there are always two overarching arguments. The attorneys argue about the law: determining which law applies and whether the law should be changed. Ultimately, questions of law will be decided by the judge. The second argument is over the facts of each case, in other words, what actually happened. A jury usually decides the facts after considering testimony and other exhibits.

However, in many cases, the parties will agree on some of the facts. When one party believes that there are no important facts in dispute, he will file a motion for summary judgment. A typical summary judgment motion has three parts. For the purposes of this article, let's assume that the plaintiff filed the motion, and that the defendant must now respond.

Part 1: These are the facts: First, the plaintiff will present a version of the facts. The plaintiff usually attaches photos, signed statements from witnesses, and any other evidence to back up their statements about the facts.

Part 2: This is the law: Next, the plaintiff will argue about the state of the law. The plaintiff's attorney will write up a memorandum that discusses the statutes and cases that govern the parties and attempt to convince the judge that, under the law, the plaintiff is entitled to win the case.

Part 3: Even if…: In the last part of the summary judgment motion, the plaintiff will anticipate what the defendant will argue, and will try to prove that even if the defendant is correct in her arguments, the plaintiff will still win the case. For example, the plaintiff in a case about squatter's rights might claim they were living on a piece of property for 15 years, but anticipates that the defendant will argue that the plaintiff has really only been living on the property for 10 years. In this case, the plaintiff can argue that even if he had only been living on the property for 10 years, that is still enough time to win on a claim of squatter's rights.

Next, the defendant responds: In her response, the defendant can either try to show that the plaintiff's arguments about the law are incorrect, or that there is evidence that there could be more than one version of the facts.

The judge's decision: After all the papers and supporting evidence has been submitted, the judge will review all the paperwork and make a decision. The judge will grant the motion, or agree with (in this case) the plaintiff, if (1) the plaintiff's arguments about the law were correct, and (2) even assuming the defendant's version of the facts were true, the plaintiff is still entitled to win. The judge will deny the motion if there is evidence that presents any questions of fact that should be put to the test of a trial.

See FindLaw's section on Trials and Appeals for more information.

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