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What is a motion for summary judgment?

A motion for summary judgment is a tool that many lawyers who represent creditors use to try and save time, money, and effort when trying to obtain a judgment against a debtor.

Chances are that if you are researching this topic, you have already been served with such a motion and now have a very short window of time to take action.  If this is the case, now is probably the time to reach out to an experienced, knowledgeable attorney for guidance, because the focus from here on out will likely be legal standards and legal analysis.

However, if you are still curious about some of the standards involved and what types of steps need to be taken to try and defeat a motion for summary judgment, the rest of this article is for you.

Why was this motion filed and what standards are the Courts supposed to apply?

Although some creditors use a motion for summary judgment as a means of cutting corners, the true purpose of summary judgment was announced by the New York State Court of Appeals in the landmark case of Andre v. Pomeroy, 35 N.Y.2d 361 (1974).  Summary judgment is designed to speed up all civil cases by getting rid of claims from the trial court’s calendar, which can be resolved as a matter of law (which means that there is no genuine issue to be resolved at trial). When presented with a summary judgment motion, the Court is not weighing the evidence in the case or making the ultimate decision as to the truth of the matter being argued. Miller v. Journal-News, 211 A.D. 2d 626, 620 N.Y.S.2d 500 (2d Dept. 1995).

Summary judgment motions were not meant to afford a plaintiff the opportunity to try and undercut a defendant’s efforts to raise defenses to the case. That’s why the Court in Coniber v. Center Point Transfer Station, Inc. explained that a party’s motion for summary judgment can be premature when it is made before the parties have even had any opportunity to engage in discovery, which is what frequently happens in creditor lawsuits. 82 A.D.3d 1629, 919 N.Y.S.2d 409 (4th Dept. 2011).

Since summary judgment is the procedural equivalent of a trial (and thus produces a very drastic result), “even the color of a triable issue forecloses the remedy.”  In other words, any doubt as to the existence of a triable issue or where a material issue of fact is ‘arguable,’ requires denial of the summary judgment motion. Salino v. IPT Trucking, 203 A.D.2d 352, 610 N.Y.S.2d 77 (2d Dep’t 1994).

The party making the motion must establish entitlement to a summary judgment by providing sufficient evidence, in admissible form, that warrants the court to direct judgment in his favor as a matter of law. Joslyn v. Village of Sylvan Beach, 256 A.D.2d 1166 (4th Dept. 1998) citing Zuckerman v. City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557 (1980).  Therefore, failing to submit sufficient proof also warrants denial of the motion.  Mickelson v. Babcock, 190 A.D.2d 1037, 1037 (4th Dep’t 1993).

So what happens now?

Armed with the information above, you may be tempted to think that it is fairly easy to defeat a motion for summary judgment.  While it is true that the standard is very high for a creditor to meet, you shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of confidence.  For example, if the creditor in your case produces an alleged contract, shows statements of purchases and payments made, and claims that a balance remains due and owing, they may have enough proof to satisfy the summary judgment standard UNLESS you have raised a valid legal defense or you are subsequently permitted to do so by the Court.

Plus, even though the Courts are familiar with the legal standards to be applied, you need to take steps to ensure that the Court is aware of the specific issues involved in YOUR case and emphasize how those issues affect the standards involved.  This is most successfully accomplished by submitting a memorandum of law to the Court for review.  Furthermore, an in-person hearing is sometimes required as well.  Here, you would debate with the creditor’s attorney about the issues and standards involved in front of the judge.  All this needs to be completed within the time frames set forth by the Court, while also complying with court procedure.

Conclusion

It can be very easy to give up or assume that you have no options when faced with a motion for summary judgment – especially if you have tried to do everything on your own (i.e. without an attorney).  However, it is never too late to speak with an attorney to determine whether you have any options and you may be surprised to learn that your options are better than you ever imagined.  Contact our law firm today for a free consultation and see if the same rings true for you!