Summary Judgment and its role in New York Business Litigation

Most people probably think “business litigation” is similar to the dramatic trial presentations on television and in the movies. But real-world litigation rarely involves drawn-out, full-blown courtroom trials. Indeed, more than 90% of litigation cases settle long before a trial is scheduled.

Moreover, almost every litigated case involves a procedure called “summary judgment,” which is not thrilling enough to be shown on television or in the movies. In general terms, summary judgment proceedings involve presenting a written request — called a “motion for summary judgment” — to the judge for a legal resolution of issues in the case based entirely on the application of laws and statutes or based on undisputed facts. A summary judgment request can seek to resolve the entire matter or can try to resolve discrete issues. For example, a summary judgment motion can ask the judge to resolve the issue of one party’s legal liability, but leave, for later trial, the question of monetary damages.

Summary judgment efforts are instrumental and effective in litigation involving New York business disputes because many business disputes involve contract-related claims. In general, how to interpret a contract is a question of law, and judges, not juries, decide questions of law.

Having the judge resolve contract interpretation disputes can lead to early settlement. Take this hypothetical, for example. Assume two businesses are disputing what actions (or non-actions) are required by the language of a given business contract that the businesses have signed. And, because the companies are disputing what the agreement requires, one has refused to take some action, like delivering the materials at the contract price. Assume that the dispute leads one party to sue the other claiming breach of contract for failure to provide the materials. Through summary judgment, one party can ask the court to resolve the legal question of how the contract should be interpreted. If the court rules that one business is required under the contract to deliver the materials, then both companies have new, relevant information that can lead to a settlement. This hypothetical shows the value of summary judgment proceedings in New York business litigation. (Of course, one party could vigorously dispute the judge’s ruling, continue the litigation, and eventually file an appeal over the judge’s ruling. But that is the subject of a different article.)

Summary judgment is also helpful in “paring down” issues for an expected courtroom trial. To continue the hypothetical, the two businesses might be disputing other legal matters. However, through summary judgment, the trial will be shortened since the judge has already resolved the question of how to interpret the contract.

The process of seeking summary judgment is simple to state in the procedure, though it can be challenging to accomplish in practice. Generally, the judge does not “hear” evidence as expected during a courtroom trial. Instead, the judge is presented with “paper” evidence, including accurate and correct copies of admissible documents (like the contract at issue), written responses to discovery questions, transcripts of deposition testimony given by witnesses, sworn statements, pleadings, and party stipulations. The judge is also provided with relevant citations to laws and statutes and relevant precedential and persuasive legal cases. As noted, the judge is empowered to make decisions that involve “pure” questions of law and affect NO disputed facts. Generally speaking, disputes about facts are decided by a jury or during a courtroom trial. Thus, the judge will only make a summary judgment ruling if the necessary facts are undisputed. For example, the parties might agree that the contract at issue was signed and properly executed. Because the parties agree, that fact is undisputed.

Often, a judge will deny a motion for summary judgment because some necessary facts are disputed. But, even a denied summary judgment can be helpful and valuable for settlement purposes. In resolving a summary judgment motion, the judge will often provide a written opinion. Whether the motion is granted or denied, the judge’s opinion includes valuable information for the litigants in gauging their chances of ultimate success if the case goes to trial.

Contact the Business Litigators at Wright Law Firm NYC Today

For more information, call the experienced New York City business lawyers at Wright Law Firm NYC. We provide legal services for New York businesses. To schedule a consultation, please contact our office by e-mail or call us at (212) 619-1500.