Supreme Court Requires Trial Courts to Explain Rulings on Summary Judgment Motions

July 15, 2014

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court has determined that the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure require trial judges to explain why they are granting or denying a motion for summary judgment before they ask the lawyer for the winning party to prepare a proposed order.

Motions for summary judgment are requests by one or more parties to a lawsuit for the court to rule on the merits of an issue before a case goes to trial. The court can determine prior to the start of a trial that there is no genuine issue of material fact and all or a portion of the case will come to an end.

In the specific case the Court decided today, Mary C. Smith sued UHS of Lakeside, Inc. in the Shelby County Circuit Court following the death of her husband who had been treated at the Lakeside Triage Center in September 2004. UHS filed motions for summary judgment asking the trial court to dismiss Ms. Smith’s lawsuit. During hearings in March 2010 and September 2011, the trial judge orally granted UHS’s motions but did not explain the basis for her decisions. Instead, the trial judge asked UHS’s lawyer to draft orders that provided the legal basis for her decisions. The trial judge signed the orders prepared by UHS’s lawyer despite Ms. Smith’s objections.

Ms. Smith appealed, and the Court of Appeals set aside the summary judgment orders. The Court of Appeals decided the trial court failed to comply with Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires trial courts to “state the legal grounds” when deciding a motion for summary judgment.

The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court failed to comply with Rule 56. The Court emphasized that deciding a motion for summary judgment is a high judicial function. The requirement that a trial court state its grounds promotes respect for the judicial system by ensuring that a summary judgment decision is the product of the trial court’s own independent analysis.

The Court held that the trial court erred by granting UHS’s motions for summary judgment without providing legal grounds and by asking UHS’s lawyers to supply the orders that articulated the reasons for the court’s decision. The Court concluded the trial court must, “upon granting or denying a motion for summary judgment … state the grounds for its decision before it invites or requests the prevailing party to draft a proposed order.”

In this case, the Court determined the contested orders were not the product of the trial court’s independent judgment, therefore the case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings.

Read the Mary C. Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc. opinion, authored by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., in the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.