Summary judgment is a legal term which means that a court has made a determination (a judgment) without a full trial. Such a judgment may be issued as to the merits of an entire case, or of specific issues in that case.
In Common Law legal systems, issues of law, that is to say, what the law actually is in a particular case, are decided by the judge, except when jury nullification of the law acts to contravene or complement the instructions or orders of the judge, or other officers of the court. A factfinder has to decide what the facts are and apply the law. In traditional Common Law the factfinder was a jury, but in many jurisdictions the judge now acts as the factfinder as well. It is the factfinder who decides "what really happened," and it is the judge who applies the law to the facts as determined by the factfinder, whether directly or by giving instructions to the jury. Absent an award of summary judgment (or some other type of pretrial dismissal), a lawsuit will ordinarily proceed to trial, which is an opportunity for each party to present evidence in an attempt to persuade the factfinder that such party is saying "what really happened," and that, under the judge's view of applicable law, such party should prevail. For a case to get to trial, the parties have to take various steps (often known as 'discovery'), including disclosing the documents to the opponent by discovery, showing the other side the evidence, often in the form of witness statements and other steps.
Complying with such directions, and going through the trial process is lengthy, can be difficult, and if one employs lawyers, can be costly.
A party moving (applying) for summary judgment is attempting to eliminate its risk of losing at trial, and possibly avoid having to go through the directions by demonstrating to the judge, by sworn statements and documentary evidence, that there are no material issues of fact remaining to be tried. If there's nothing for the jury to decide, then, asks the moving party rhetorically, why have a trial? In its motion (request) for summary judgment, the moving party will also attempt to persuade the court that the undisputed material facts require judgment to be entered in favor of the moving party. In many jurisdictions, a party moving for summary judgment takes the risk that, although the judge may agree there are no material issues of fact remaining for trial, the judge may also find that it is the non-moving party who is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
A party making a motion for summary judgment (or making any other motion) is called a "moving party." A "material fact" is one which, depending upon what the factfinder believes "really happened," could lead to judgment in favor of one party, rather than the other. A simple example of summary judgment is provided below.
A party moving for summary judgment may refer to any evidence that would be admissible if there were to be a trial, such as, depositions, party admissions, documents received during discovery (such as contracts, emails, letters, and certified government documents). Each party may present to the court its view of applicable law by submitting a legal memorandum in support of, or in opposition to, the motion. The court may allow for oral argument of the lawyers, generally where the judge wishes to question the lawyers on issues in the case.
Summary judgment is awarded if the undisputed facts and the law make it clear that it would be impossible for one party to prevail if the matter were to proceed to trial. The court must consider all materials in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, (1970), and Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). Anderson v. Liberty Lobby enunciated the moving party's burden on summary judgment and for that reason it is so frequently cited by appellate courts when reviewing a trial court's grant of summary judgment that it is the most-quoted Supreme Court case of all.
If a trial could result in the jury (or judge in a bench trial) deciding in favor of the party opposing the motion, then summary judgment is inappropriate. A decision granting summary judgment can be appealed without delay. A decision denying summary judgment ordinarily cannot be immediately appealed; instead, the case continues on its normal course. In United States federal courts, a denial of summary judgment cannot be appealed until final resolution of the whole case, because of the requirements of and (the final judgment rule).
In order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party only has to show substantial evidence that a dispute of material facts exists, regardless of the strength of that evidence. For example, if one side on a summary judgment motion can produce the evidence of "a dozen bishops", and the other side only has the testimony of a known liar, then summary judgment is not appropriate. Deciding on the relative credibility of witnesses is a question for trial.
Where appropriate, a court may award summary judgment upon less than all claims, known as "partial summary judgment."
It is not uncommon for summary judgments of lower U.S. courts in complex cases to be overturned on appeal. A grant of summary judgment is reviewed "de novo" (meaning, without deference to the views of the trial judge) both as to the determination that there is no remaining genuine issue of material fact and that the prevailing party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
A motion for summary judgment in United States District Court is governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Other pretrial motions, such as a "motion for judgment on the pleadings" or a "motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted," can be converted by the judge to motions for summary judgment, if matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the trial-court judge.
Summary judgment practice in most states is similar to federal practice, though with minor differences. For example, the U.S. state of California requires the moving party to actually present evidence rather than merely refer to evidence. See Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 25 Cal. 4th 826 (2001). This is done by attaching relevant documents and by summarizing all relevant factual points within those documents in a separate statement of facts. In turn, the record to be reviewed by the judge can be very large; for example, the Aguilar case involved a record of about 18,400 pages. Also, California uses the term "summary adjudication" instead of "partial summary judgment." A party may move for summary adjudication under California Code of Civil Procedure section 437c, only with respect to a cause of action, an affirmative defense or a claim for punitive damages.
Summary judgment is available in all claims against both the defendant and claimant except: