Is Summary Judgment Unconstitutional?

That’s surely a heretical thought to many. And not one that would have popped into my head had reader Joe Norman not commented on my post regarding new trial motions following summary judgment by sending a link to an article by University of Cincinnati College of Law professor Suja Thomas entitled “Why Summary Judgment is Unconstitutional.” Before you laugh off that idea, you ought to read the abstract at that link. An excerpt:

While other scholars question the use of summary judgment in certain types of cases (for example, civil rights cases), all scholars and judges assume away a critical question: whether summary judgment is constitutional. The conventional wisdom is that the Supreme Court settled the issue a century ago in Fidelity & Deposit Co. v. United States. But a review of that case reveals that the conventional wisdom is wrong: the constitutionality of summary judgment has never been resolved by the Supreme Court. This Essay is the first to examine the question and takes the seemingly heretical position that summary judgment is unconstitutional. The question is governed by the Seventh Amendment which provides that “[i]n Suits at common law, . . . the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Odds are slim that I can read the article any time soon, so if anyone reads it, I’d sure be interested in your comments, which I encourage you to leave on this post.

New Trial Motions after Summary Judgment

Can you move for a new trial when your case was disposed of by summary judgment?  This question undoubtedly causes some degree of cognitive dissonance in many lawyers: a new trial when there was no trial?

But the answer is “yes.”

A reminder comes in the form of Doe v. United Airlines, case no. B192865 (2d Dist. Mar. 20, 2008).  After United successfully moved for summary judgment, Doe moved for a new trial on the ground of “newly discovered evidence” that purportedly raised a triable issue of fact precluding summary judgment.

Not that it ultimately did her any good.  The court of appeal holds that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the new trial motion and affirms on plaintiff’s protective cross-appeal from the grant of summary judgment.

There are lots of post-trial and appellate tidbits in this case.  Nothing new, just well-established principles for which the case provides a reminder.  I’ll probably be putting up separate posts on them (or consolidate them into a new post) in the next few days.

Potentially Void Judgment Reversed on the Merits

Here’s a post I’ve been saving for a time where I’m too busy to spend much time on new content. I may get a post up later in the day, but in the meantime, I’ll get on my soapbox about why I think the Court of Appeal blew it on a jurisdictional question in Holland v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., case no. C052833 (3d Dist. July 30, 2007, certified for publication August 29, 2007).

The case came up on appeal from a summary judgment granted on the ground that the plaintiff’s administrative complaint was untimely. The timeliness of the administrative complaint turned on whether the Department of Fair Employment and Housing caused plaintiff to miss his filing deadline for filing a verified administrative complaint (thus equitably tolling the limitations period) rather than whether there was a triable issue on the substantive allegations of his complaint against his employer. (Thus, the Court of Appeal deemed the substantive allegations of the complaint “largely irrelevant,” so we needn’t discuss them here.) The court found that equitable tolling applied, the summary judgment on timeliness grounds was error, and remanded to the trial court to consider the remaining issues

The most interesting aspect of the case (at least for this jurisdiction geek) is how the court addressed the plaintiff’s contention that the court commissioner lacked jurisdiction to decide the motion. After evaluating the competing evidence over whether plaintiff had consented to the commissioner and the legal positions of the parties, the court says that it is “immaterial” which side is right on the jurisdictional question.

Wow. The existence of jurisdiction is, in the eyes of this panel and in this particular case, immaterial. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The court deems the trial court’s jurisdiction immaterial because it figures that if it remands, the case will just come up on appeal again on the exact same papers, so remanding would waste judicial resources:

Even if we were to concur that the judge pro tem lacked jurisdiction to hear the motion, there would not be any purpose in reversing the judgment and remanding the matter, only to exercise de novo review of the same materials on appeal from a ruling of a judge of the trial court (as our remittitur would not authorize reopening the motion), if we believe the outcome would be the same on the substantive timeliness issue. This only wastes scarce judicial resources and causes needless expense to the parties. We therefore proceed to the matter of whether the plaintiff’s failure to file a timely administrative complaint is excusable.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the potential lack of jurisdiction treated so casually. If jurisdiction is lacking, the grant of summary judgment is void. So the court of appeal is analyzing the merits of a potentially void judgment. That is a big deal, and hardly consistent with the court of appeal’s usually zealous protection of its jurisdiction.

I think the court should have been more diligent in determining whether there was jurisdiction. Had it determined a lack of jurisdiction by the commissioner, it should have reversed and remanded without an examination on the merits. The reasons the court offers for the immateriality of jurisdiction don’t stand up well to scrutiny.

First, the court’s position that it would be reviewing “the same materials” on a subsequent appeal seems misguided. It rests on an anticipated remittitur that “would not authorize reopening the motion.” While it might be appropriate to preclude new declarations in support or opposition to the summary judgment motion, there seems no reason to restrict the scope of review by the new trial judge on legal issues. Suppose the new judge hearing the motion sees a legal point that the commissioner missed and wants to ask for additional briefing on an issue? Would the remittitur also preclude that?

A second problem with the “same materials” rationale is that even if the summary judgment papers are unchanged, a second appeal would afford the parties an opportunity to revise their appellate briefs. One of the briefs might be substantially more persuasive, cite additional authority, or otherwise differ from the briefs on this appeal, potentially leading the court of appeal to a different result.

Even more obviously, it is uncertain whether the Court of Appeal would ever see the case again. Suppose the superior court judge on remand disagreed with the commissioner’s disposition and denied the motion. The defendant would have to file a petition for writ of mandamus (which has a 90% + chance of not being heard on the merits) or await final judgment before appealing on the ground that the motion was improperly denied. The case would have a decent chance of settling with a trial on the horizon, so the court of appeal might not see the case again.

All of these possibilities argue against what the Court of Appeal did here.