Thanks to a new Tennessee law, it will be a little easier for parties, including employers, to obtain summary judgment in cases filed on or after July 1, 2011. A bill recently passed by the legislature and awaiting the Governor’s signature reverses the effects of a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that nearly made summary judgment obsolete and pushed more cases to trial (or settlement).
Summary judgment is a procedural device that allows the judge to dispose of cases prior to trial where there trial is unnecessary because the facts are not disputed and the plaintiff’s claims are legally insufficient. Summary judgment is a tool that employers commonly used to have meritless discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims dismissed without having to undergo the expense and uncertainty of that accompanies a trial.
(You can read about the cases which led to this legislation here and here.)
With the passage of House Bill No. 1358/Senate Bill No. 1114, the Tennessee legislature has not only reversed the effects of the Hannan decision, but it has required Tennessee courts to apply the same summary judgment procedure as is applied in federal courts. The operative language of the statute states that the moving party shall be entitled to summary judgment if it “[d]emonstrates to the court that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.” The legislature clearly intended to revive summary judgment as a useful procedural device to weed out the cases that do not deserve to go to trial.
It remains to be seen how courts will interpret this law and whether courts will still feel reluctant to grant summary judgment. From the employer’s standpoint, however, this is a welcome change in the law. It will reduce the risk that meritless lawsuits go further in the process than they should, or that employers feel extorted to settle on unfavorable terms simply to avoid the costs of litigating the case.