Regarding Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard

Effective May 1, 2021, Florida became the 39th state to adopt the federal summary judgment standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the series of cases known as the Celotex trilogy. In Re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, 309 So. 3d 192 (Fla. 2020). Florida’s new summary judgment standard is now a carbon copy of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 and reads as follows, “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law… The summary judgment standard provided for in this rule shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510(a). Florida’s prior summary judgment standard was markedly stricter than the newly adopted federal standard, and the shift indicates the Florida Supreme Court’s intent on providing trial courts with significantly more latitude and discretion to grant summary judgment motions.

The previous Florida standard required that “all doubts and inferences must be resolved against the moving party, and if there is the slightest doubt or conflict in the evidence, then summary judgment is not available.” Shreffler v. Philippon, 873 So. 2d 1280, 1281 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). Additionally, in comparing the Florida standard to the federal standard, the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded that “Florida places a higher burden on a moving party for summary judgment in state court, requiring the movant to ‘show conclusively that no material issues remain for trial.’” Byrd v. BT Foods, Inc., 948 So. 2d 921 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007). In Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, 308 So. 3d 961 (Fla. 2020), the Florida Supreme Court took the opportunity to adopt the federal summary judgment standard and abandon the previous more restrictive Florida standard.

The Florida Supreme Court explained its reasoning for adopting the federal standard via In Re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 on the same day it issued its opinion in Wilsonart. The Court explained that Florida’s standard differed from the federal standard in three major ways.

First, Florida courts must recognize the “fundamental similarity” between a motion for summary judgment and a motion for directed verdict. In Re Amendments, 309 So. 3d at 192. While Florida courts historically treated a pre-trial motion for summary judgment as more demanding than a motion for directed verdict, the new standard does not. Both motions require federal courts to evaluate whether “the record taken as a whole could…lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party….” Wilsonart, 308 So. 3d at 961 (citations omitted). Accordingly, Florida litigants are now governed by a single standard for both motions for summary judgment and motions for directed verdict.

Second, movants who do not bear the burden of persuasion need not disprove a non-movants theory of the case. Bedford v. Doe, 880 F.3d 993, 996-97 (8th Cir. 2018). “[I]f the nonmoving party must prove X to prevail [at trial], the moving party at summary judgment can either produce evidence that X is not so or point out that the nonmoving party lacks the evidence to prove X. Id. As such, it is no longer required that a moving party “negate” a non-moving party’s claim. Rather, the movant can succeed on a motion for summary judgment by showing that the nonmovant simply cannot support its argument.

Florida previously defined a “genuine issue of material of fact” more broadly than federal jurisprudence. Specifically, prior to the adoption of the new standard, Florida courts would deny motions for summary judgment when there was “even the possibility of a material issue of fact.” Cox v. CSX Intermodal, Inc., 732 So. 2d 1092, 1095 (Fla. 1st DCA 1999) (emphasis added). Under the new standard, the correct way to identify a genuine factual dispute is whether “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986). Under the new standard, nonmovants are required to produce some sort of counter evidence which is credible and probative enough such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant.

With the above changes in mind, the Florida Supreme Court determined that the federal summary judgment standard “best comports with the text and purpose of Rule 1.510” and its adoption “is in the best interest of [the State of Florida].” Ultimately, “the federal summary judgment standard is more rational, more fair, and more consistent with the structure and purpose of [Florida’s] rules of civil procedure.” In Re Amendments, 309 So. 3d at 192.