Thursday, October 2, 2014

2d Circuit gives district court a primer on summary judgment motions

In this case, the Court of Appeals "write[s] to clarify a district court's obligations in granting summary judgment where a motion for such judgment is fully or partially unopposed." While this ruling is meant for district judges, if you handle cases in federal court and summary judgment motions are a part of your life, you should also read it.

The case is Jackson v. Federal Express, decided on September 9. In this employment discrimination case, FedEx moved for summary judgment at the close of discovery, filing a Rule 56.1 statement of undisputed facts that it claimed entitled them to summary judgment. Plaintiff's lawyer filed a brief that said fact issues warranted a trial on the retaliation, but said nothing about plaintiff's other claims. The district court dismissed the retaliation claim, finding that no jury would find in her favor. It also dismissed the remaining claims "in the absence of opposition."

This sequence provides the vehicle for the Second Circuit to remind us that the district court cannot simply enter default judgment if the plaintiff fails to respond to a summary judgment motion. The court still has to review the Rule 56.1 statements and decide for itself if the plaintiff has a case. Of course, if plaintiff does not respond to the motion, that sends a bad signal to the district court. But the court still has to follow the process. It is conceivable that an unopposed motion can still be denied if the district court thinks the plaintiff has a case.

Here is the general rule for district courts to follow:

when a party, whether pro se or counseled, fails to respond to an opponent's motion for summary judgment, a district court may not enter a default judgment. Rather, it must examine the movant's statement of undisputed facts and the proferred record support and determine whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment. Where a partial response to a motion is made -- i.e., referencing some claims or defenses but not others -- a distinction between pro se and counseled responses is appropriate. In the case of a pro se, the district court should examine every claim or defense with a view to determining whether summary judgment is legally and factually appropriate. In contrast, in the case of a counseled party, a court may, when appropriate, infer from a party's partial opposition that relevant claims or defenses that are not defended have been abandoned. In all cases in which summary judgment is granted, the district court must provide an explanation sufficient to allow appellate review. This explanation should, where appropriate, include a finding of abandonment of undefended claims or defenses.

The Second Circuit (Winter, Hall and Straub) says the district court did its job here and did not simply grant default judgment on plaintiff's claims. Rather, the Court of Appeals notes that summary judgment is a good time for plaintiff's counsel to decide which claims to pursue and which to abandon. Abandonment may be implied if counsel does not respond to defendant's arguments about those claims. "Where abandonment by a counseled party is not explicit but such an inference may be fairly drawn from the papers and circumstances viewed as a whole, district courts may conclude that abandonment was intended." That inference was proper in this case because plaintiff's lawyer expressly focused on the retaliation claim only, not the others.

The Second Circuit further states that district courts are not required to issue lengthy rulings on summary judgment motions. All that is required is enough analysis to permit meaningful appellate review. In this case, the district court satisfied its obligations. The case was relatively simple to decide in that plaintiff's retaliation claim "collapsed with her deposition" as she contradicted allegations in her complaint and made certain admissions that killed the case. "In such a case, there is no need for a district court to robotically replicate the defendant-movant's statement of undisputed facts and references to the record or otherwise serve as an assistant to our law clerks."

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