While there are a number of motions that may be filed during and after the discovery process, such as motions to compel discovery, or motions for protective orders, what I want to talk about are motions which directly effect the outcome of the case. So even though the title of this section is titled “Motions” it should probably be titled “Dispositive Motions”.
The most common question that I am asked by my clients during litigation is a variation on “can’t the judge just decide this case?” This is especially true when one side feels the other side’s case is completely without merit (as opposed to those cases where there is merely a dispute about how much one party owes another, not “if” one party owes something to the other.) Like many things in the law, the answer is that it depends; there are times when the Judge may make dispositive decisions regarding the case, and times when he/she may not. (This explanation is regarding Judges making decision prior to trial in the case of a Court trial case)
The rule of thumb is that for any dispositive motions, the Judge cannot decide issues of fact, but rather can decide issues of law. Therefore, the only time that dispositive motions, such as a motion for summary judgment is appropriate, is when your attorney believes that through the pleadings or discovery process they can show to the Judge that there are no material issues of fact relating to the claim at issue.
A simple example of a claim for summary judgment would be in an instance where there are two claims and three defendants. The claims are Breach of Contract and Intentional Misrepresentation/Fraud against all three defendants. The Defendants are ABC, LLC, Mr. X and Mr. Y both co-owners of the company. A claim of Fraud can be pled directly against an individual, because it is an intentional tort, and therefore Mr. X and Mr. Y cannot hide behind the liability protection of the LLC. However, through the Discovery process it turns out that the Plaintiff only alleges that there was conduct on the part of Mr. X that would constitute Fraud. This may mean that there are no facts alleged against Mr. Y to meet the elements of the claim for Fraud, and therefore it may be appropriate to bring a motion for Summary Judgment in which the Judge could rule that the Fraud claim against Mr. Y is dismissed.
So, while the Judge may be able to address the claims alleged against Mr. Y, he/she is not allowed to determine the sufficiency or the validity of the claims against Mr. X. If the plaintiff through Discovery has alleged that Mr. X has made specific fraudulent representations, it will be up to the trier of fact to determine at trial whether or not those allegations are true, not the Judge at Summary Judgment.
For obvious reasons motions for Summary Judgment can be a powerful tool. The more you are able to narrow your opponents claims or get a decision on your own claims, the more leverage you may have to try and settle the case in mediation
Sean M. Sweeney is a shareholder at Halling & Cayo. His practice focuses on business litigation, civil litigation, stock broker fraud, business transnational law, and real estate law. Sean represents investors, small business owners, and companies locally in Wisconsin, all over the United States, as well as internationally with clients in Canada, Germany, and Australia.
Email Sean: [email protected]