Orders on Motions for Summary Judgment – Rubber-Stamping Not Allowed

            This summer the Tennessee Supreme Court offered guidance on what a trial court must do when granting or denying a motion for summary judgment under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. Despite the longstanding practice of many courts to have a prevailing party draft and submit a proposed order, the Court emphatically expressed that the record must show that an order granting or denying summary judgment was the product of the trial court’s “independent judgment.”

               In Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., No. W2011-02405-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. July 15, 2014), plaintiff’s complaint listed multiple causes of action related to the alleged improper assessment and resulting delayed treatment of decedent. During lengthy pre-trial litigation, defendant moved for summary judgment as to all of plaintiff’s claims. After a hearing, the trial court ruled in favor of plaintiff on some claims and defendant on two claims. After orally announcing the direction of the ruling, the trial court stated: “As far as a basis for the ruling, I’m going to let [defendant’s counsel] make those…the motions in which you were successful, you’ll prepare the order and the rationale for the Court’s ruling.”

               Plaintiff later filed an amended complaint, and defendant again filed a motion for summary judgment as to all claims. This time the trial court granted defendant’s motion in total and stated, “I’m directing the defendant to prepare the order and to establish the rationale for the court’s ruling in quite specific detail[.]” Both orders submitted by defendant and signed and entered by the trial court were highly detailed, essentially adopting all of defendant’s arguments from its brief. After the entry of each order, plaintiff objected to the orders arguing that the orders contained rulings and findings that the trial court did not actually make.

               Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals vacated the orders granting summary judgment stating that “the trial court’s oral statements provide absolutely no basis for the trial court’s ruling.” The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed this decision.

               Since 2007, Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 has stated that “the trial court shall state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion, which shall be reflected in the court’s ruling.” Pursuant to this rule, then, stating the grounds for summary judgment is mandatory. In Smith, the Court noted that this rule change was adopted both to promote acceptance of and respect for the legal system and decision at hand, as well as to clarify the explanation of summary judgment rulings for appellate courts reviewing such decisions. When reviewing whether a trial court has complied with Rule 56.04, the Court noted that an appellate court should “take into consideration the fundamental importance of assuring that a trial court’s decision either to grant or deny a summary judgment is adequately explained and is the product of the trial court’s independent judgment.”

               While the Court expressly noted concerns regarding “the practice of courts adopting verbatim findings of fact, conclusions of law, and orders prepared by counsel for the prevailing party[,]” the Court ultimately determined that requesting and considering proposed orders prepared by a prevailing party was not inconsistent with Rule 56.04. Instead, the Court held that Rule 56.04 “requires the trial court upon granting or denying a motion for summary judgment to state the grounds for its decision before it invites or requests the prevailing party to draft a proposed order.” According to the Smith opinion, a trial court can state its grounds at the time it announces the decision on the record, in a subsequently filed memorandum or opinion, or in a letter provided to all parties and made part of the record (see note 28).

               In the present matter, the Court determined that the trial court had not stated its reasoning for granting summary judgment. The Court rejected defendant’s argument that because the trial court eventually signed and entered the orders, the reasoning contained therein should be imputed to the court. The Supreme Court called this a “reverse-engineered circumvention” of Rule 56.04 and thus affirmed the appellate court’s vacating of the orders.

               This case is important for attorneys to note as they move through pre-trial litigation. Pursuant to this decision, if you secure summary judgment for your client, you should ensure that at some point before proposed orders are submitted the court expressly states its reasoning for granting your motion. On the other hand, if you are on the losing end of a summary judgment motion, be aware that if the court fails to articulate its reasoning, the Smith case could be useful on appeal.