Can summary judgement motions resolve employment cases?

December 5, 2019

Topics: Employment Litigation

Few employment cases actually ever get to trial.  Once the discovery phase of the case is over (for more information, see What Is Discovery?), the parties usually have an opportunity to ask the court to rule in their favor before a trial.  This is done by the employee or the company submitting a motion to the judge asking him or her to say they won without having to have a trial.  A “motion” is merely a set of legal papers requesting that the judge take some action on behalf of the person or entity that filed the motion.

At a trial, the judge (and possibly a jury) will hear evidence from witnesses who will tell what they know about the claims and defenses, as well as describe documents that are claimed to help (or hurt) one side or the other.  Based on the witness testimony and documentary evidence, the judge (and/or jury) will determine who they believe, what information they find credible, and, in short, who wins.

A trial is only necessary where the evidence is in dispute so that a determination is needed regarding which side to believe.  There can be situations where, after discovery is conducted, documents are collected and witnesses are deposed, one side feels that the evidence is so strong in its favor, and so clearly incontrovertible, that if the court were to review it, a determination could be made without the need for a trial.

Most courts have a procedure, usually called a “summary judgement motion,” to put this incontrovertible evidence before the court and ask for a ruling in advance of a trial.  In order to prevail on such a motion, the movant usually needs to show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Summary Judgement.)  State standards are similar.

In order to compile a summary judgement motion, employment defense lawyers gather all the deposition transcripts and documents exchanged in discovery and determine what evidence exists to show that the plaintiff’s claim of discrimination or harassment, or other allegations, cannot survive as a matter of law.  Such motion papers are generally lengthy, including many exhibits of documents and deposition transcript pages.  Your lawyer may ask you or other representatives from your company, to compile affidavits to provide necessary information to the judge.

Prudent counsel conducts discovery with an eye towards the ability to submit a summary judgement motion.  Questions are asked at witness depositions specifically to obtain information that can be shown to be undisputed.

If your company is subjected to an employment litigation, your counsel should discuss with you the advisability of filing a summary judgement motion.  Although these can be complicated endeavors, if there is a good chance to have the entire case dismissed and avoid a trial, they can be viable strategy options.  Each case is different.  Only your lawyer can advise how to proceed in a particular case.  Different factors are considered, including how such motions are dealt with in the court where your case is pending generally, and how they are addressed by the judge assigned to the case in particular.

A defendant that files, and loses, a summary judgment motion, has not necessarily lost the case. It merely means that the judge feels there are disputed issues of material fact that need to be determined through a trial.  Even when unsuccessful, such motions can be windows into the judge’s thinking about the case to help narrow the issues to be addressed at trial.

If a summary judgment motion is granted to the defendant company on all of the plaintiff employee’s claims, the claims are dismissed, and the matter is ended – unless, of course, the plaintiff appeals the judge’s decision to a higher court.  Should that happen, your lawyer would advise as to options and strategies as potential next steps to endeavor to resolve the matter in the company’s best interests.

Experienced employment attorneys are familiar with the strategies and options to defend employment claims.  Be sure your lawyer explains the process and answers any questions you may have.