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Florida Adopts the Federal Summary Judgment Standard: A Summary

Eli M. Marger and Harold A. Saul | January 18, 2021

Following the December 31, 2020 decision in Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez and prospective change to the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure by Florida's Supreme Court, Florida became the 39th state to adopt the federal standard for summary judgment, colloquially known as the Celotex standard. The Florida Supreme Court amended Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, adding the following language:

The summary judgment standard provided for in this rule shall be construed and applied in accordance with the federal summary judgment standard articulated in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); and Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986).
 
While the text of the summary judgment rule in both the Florida (Rule 1.510) and federal rules of procedure (Rule 56) is virtually identical, Florida courts have traditionally applied a more stringent standard to summary judgment. The crucial difference is how courts evaluate factual disputes: under Florida's jurisprudence, the existence of any factual dispute, no matter how trivial, is sufficient to defeat summary judgment; under the Celotex standard, the court instead focuses on whether a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party despite the factual dispute. In other words, a factual dispute under Celotex may not be fatal to a motion for summary judgment if the underlying fact in dispute would not change a jury's verdict.

In the Wilsonart decision, the Florida Supreme Court did not actually invalidate or re-interpret existing law; instead, it merely approved of adopting the Celotex standard. Therefore, practitioners should be prepared for “growing pains” among judges at the trial court level and in the district courts of appeal in navigating this new standard and making decisions accordingly in summary judgment proceedings, until a more concrete standard is created, applied, and trickles down through the Florida court system.

The amended Rule 1.510 takes effect on May 1, 2021, allowing practitioners and interested parties a chance to publicly comment on the proposed rule change. Because the new rule language as presently proposed is broad, the possibility exists the language will be refined to further clarify the precise standard for summary judgment. In the interim, Florida's summary judgment jurisprudence remains in effect.

In the short term, parties should focus in applicable cases on having previously-denied Motions for Summary Judgment reconsidered after May 1. However, the costs and benefits of doing so should be weighed on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind the true magnitude of this decision is highly dependent on how Florida appellate courts apply Celotex. As a result, months or more may elapse before defense lawyers are able to fully evaluate how this new standard will affect case strategy moving forward.

Kubicki Draper’s Angela Flowers wrote an amicus brief in support of the adoption of Celotex on behalf of the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel. The attorneys at Kubicki Draper are prepared to discuss this noteworthy development and answer questions about how it may impact case handling and strategy after May 1, 2021.

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