The procedural rules in civil lawsuits allow either party to file a motion before trial for “summary judgment,” in which the judge is asked to decide whether, in light of all of the evidence expected to be presented at the trial, one side would win the case hands-down. The most common use of summary judgment is when a defendant argues that the plaintiff has no evidence to prove one of the issues it has to prove to win its case. The Supreme Court recently issued a ruling reaffirming the importance of contradictions in the available evidence when assessing a summary judgment motion.
The case arose from a police officer shooting a mistakenly identified suspect. A patrolling officer spotted an SUV turning quickly onto a residential street and parking in front of a house. After two men exited, the officer checked the license plate. Unfortunately, he mistyped the plate number, and the wrong number matched a stolen car. The patrol officer ordered the two men two lie on the ground and accused them of stealing the car, which they denied.
One of the suspect’s parents came out of the house, and identified one of the suspects as their son, and the house and car as theirs. The officer called for backup and told a responding officer that the suspects had been in a stolen car. The second officer told the suspect’s mother to stand against the garage. She objected.
The remainder of the incident is disputed, and my description is a compilation of evidence as described by the Court. The first officer either pushed the suspect’s mother against the garage door, or grabbed her by the arm and swung her against the door, possibly against resistance and possibly causing severe bruises. The suspect then rose to either his feet or his knees, and told the officer to unhand his mother. At this point, the second officer shot and severely wounded the suspect.
The injured suspect sued the shooting officer for violation of his civil rights based on use of excessive force. The officer moved for summary judgment. The trial court ruled that the use of force was not unreasonable and issued an order granting the summary judgment. The Court of Appeals ruled for the officer on different grounds, based on a quirk of civil rights law. The Court of Appeals thought that the shooting was an excessive use of force, but looked at whether, at the time of the incident, it could be clearly determined whether it was an excessive use of force. It focused on four points to rule that the officer could have determined that the suspect was an immediate threat jusrifying the use of deadly force: that the driveway was dimly lit, that the suspect’s mother had refused orders to remain quiet and calm; that the suspect’s demand the officer unhand his mother amounted to a threat; and that the suspect appeared to be moving to intervene.
The Supreme Court not only agreed to hear the case, it reversed the Court of Appeals on the initial petition for review, without asking for further briefs and hearing as it usually does. It also issued an unsigned opinion, which is its practice when it thinks the ruling is obvious. (Justices Alito and Scalia agreed only because they thought there was a clear dispute in the evidence and that the lower court applied the correct legal standard for reviewing the evidence.)
The Court’s reasoning focused on summary judgment procedure. Summary judgments are designed to close a case before trial, which means that judges have to be aware when a question should be left for a jury to decide later. In reviewing summary judgment motions, the judge has to review the evidence from the opposing side’s point of view. Concurrent with that point is that when the evidence is disputed, the judge cannot disregard the dispute, but should grant the motion only when the dispute won’t affect how the law decides the question.
The Court found contradictions in the evidence on several of the points that the Court of Appeals relied on. First, there was evidence that the driveway was not dimly lit, but instead had a working porch light, and two floodlights, rendering the suspect well-lit. Second, there was disputed evidence whether the suspect’s mother was agitated when she disputed the officer’s claim that the car was stolen. As a result, whether she had obeyed orders to remain quiet and calm was disputed. Third, the suspect denied that he had shouted his demand to unhand his mother, and, in light of his testimony that the officer had just forcefully slammed his mother against the garage and that she suffered bruises that were later photographed as evidence, the demand could be interpreted as not a threat but a request that the officer use less force. Finally, there was also a contradiction whether the suspect was about to intervene. Although one officer testified the suspect was on his feet in a crouch, the suspect and his mother testified that he was on his knees, and the suspect denied jumping to his feet. In reviewing all of the evidence, the Court concluded that the question of whether deadly force was or was not clearly unjustified could not be answered without a trial, and that therefore summary judgment was not appropriate.
In Oregon and Washington state courts, a similarly careful review of evidence is used. Contradictions that call into question a point of law that could go either was as a result almost always mean that summary judgment will be denied.
Lawyers for defendants often file summary judgment motions if they think the plaintiff does not have enough evidence to prove their case. I have been involved in summary judgment motions, both in favor of the motion and against, as have most lawyers with litigation experience. This is one of the reasons a careful review of evidence with a lawyer is essential in preparing a case and why a lawyer may ask questions that do not go directly to the central facts of the case as a client may see them. If your lawyer is asking questions, or wants to see documents, that don’t seem to be important, there is often a reason.