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Summary Judgments in Tennessee: The Basics

In many, if not most, of the cases in which I am involved, I end up explaining to clients what a summary judgment motion is and how a summary judgment might affect their case.  The concept of a summary judgment is a pretty simple thing.  If a summary judgment is entered by the judge, then, barring a reversal of that ruling, the case will never go to trial before a judge or jury.  A summary judgment ends the case.

Summary judgments (and summary judgment motions) fall into two broad categories: (1) Summary judgments (which are entered as the result of motions for summary judgment); and (2) partial summary judgments (which are entered as the result of motions for partial summary judgment).  With some frequency, parties to a lawsuit will file motions for partial summary judgments.  A motion for partial summary judgment requests that the judge end the case just as to some of the claims or causes of action by dismissing them, but not as to all of the claims or causes of action.  For example, if a plaintiff has filed a complaint with three causes of action like breach of contract; fraud; and intentional interference with contract, the defendant may file a motion for partial summary judgment asking the judge to dismiss the fraud and intentional interference claims, but not the breach of contract claim.  If the judge grants the motion for partial summary judgment and dismisses the fraud and intentional interference with contract claims, then only the breach of contract claim will proceed to trial.

It happens frequently that a party will file a motion for summary judgment on all claims, and the court will dismiss only some of the claims.  In my practice, which is typical of most Tennessee trial lawyers with whom I have spoken, summary judgment motions are filed most of the time by defendants seeking to dismiss claims filed against them or some of the claims filed against them.  However, plaintiffs (the parties who file lawsuits) may also file motions for summary judgment. I have been involved in quite a few cases where I represented a plaintiff, filed a motion for summary judgment, and the judge ruled that my client should be granted a summary judgment.

Q:          When will a Tennessee trial judge grant a summary judgment?

A:          (In answering this question, I intend to stay away from legalese and from an in-depth and technical discussion about the standard for summary judgment in Tennessee.  So, this answer is an over generalization and an over simplification.)   In a nutshell, if none of the facts which make a difference to the outcome of the case are in dispute, the judge can grant a summary judgment which he or she will do by applying the law to the undisputed facts.  Here are examples of a case appropriate for summary judgment and one not appropriate for summary judgment:

Appropriate Case for Summary Judgment:  Manufacturer and Sales Representative (“Rep”) entered into a written contract for the payment of commissions.  Manufacturer terminated the contract and claimed that Rep was not owed commissions after the termination.  Rep sued alleging that he should be paid commissions after the termination of the agreement from customers he introduced to Manufacturer.  Manufacturer and Rep agree on the material facts of the case (the terms of the written contract; when Rep was terminated; the Rep’s commission rate; and, most importantly, the monies Manufacturer received after it terminated Rep from customers Rep introduced to Manufacturer).  The wording of the written contract between Rep and Manufacturer, however, is not clear and could be interpreted to mean that Rep is owed commissions after his termination or that he is only owed them up until the point of his termination.  This is an ideal case for summary judgment.  There are no material facts in dispute. The only dispute is about how the parties’ written agreement should be construed — which is strictly a question about the application of the law (in this case, Tennessee contract interpretation principles) to the undisputed facts (the wording of the written contract).

Case Not Appropriate for Summary Judgment:  Assume the same facts as above, but, this time, Rep claims that, after the written contract was signed, he and Manufacturer had a conversation in which Manufacturer told Rep that it realized that the written agreement was not clear about whether Rep would receive commissions after the contract was terminated, and promised Rep that, if he kept introducing customers to Manufacturer, he would be paid commissions for one year after termination.  Manufacturer denies that it ever told Rep that.  This case cannot be resolved on a summary judgment motion because it hinges on the resolution of a material fact about which the parties disagree.  A judge cannot typically resolve disputes about facts which are material to the outcome of the case on a summary judgment.  It is for the jury (or judge, if no jury has been demanded) to decide, after a trial, who is telling the truth.  Even if a judge is convinced that Rep is lying, he or she typically cannot grant a summary judgment to Manufacturer because, when ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the judge must assume that the Rep’s testimony is true.