Summary judgment vacated due to insufficient reasoning in trial court order.

Where the trial court did not provide sufficient reasoning for its grant of summary judgment in a misrepresentation case, summary judgment was vacated and the case was remanded to the trial court.

In Smith v. Walker, No. W2021-00241-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2022), plaintiffs purchased a home from defendants. Shortly after the purchase, plaintiffs discovered the home was contaminated with mold, and they filed this action asserting claims for breach of contract, negligence, gross negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and intentional misrepresentation.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. In its very brief order granting summary judgment, the trial court stated that the real estate contract contained an “as is” provision and that there was “no proof in the record that [defendants] made any intentional misrepresentations.” On appeal, the Court vacated this order, finding that the reasoning contained therein was not sufficient under Rule 56.04 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.

Rule 56.04 requires a court granting or denying summary judgment to “state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion, which shall be included in the order reflecting the court’s ruling.” This duty is considered a “high judicial function,” and when trial courts fail to sufficiently state their reasoning, appellate courts are not required to “conduct archaeological digs of the record[.]” (internal citations and quotations omitted). In this case, the Court determined that the “trial court’s order [was] deficient in multiple respects.”

After noting that plaintiffs seemingly abandoned some of their causes of action in their appellate brief, the Court stated that plaintiffs had “preserved their claims regarding both intentional and negligent misrepresentation on appeal.” Regarding the deficiencies in the trial court’s order, the Court explained:

The claim of negligent misrepresentation is not specifically considered by the trial court’s order in any fashion. Even to the extent that the trial court did provide some legal reasoning that could be interpreted as applying to both intentional and negligent misrepresentation, we must conclude that the trial court’s order is deficient. Specifically, the portion of the trial court’s order explaining its decision to grant summary judgment is comprised of a mere two sentences. …In the second sentence, the trial court made a conclusory finding ‘that there is no proof in the record’ of intentional misrepresentations by [defendant]. Again, the trial court did not explain its finding, including why the parties’ disputes over certain facts were not genuine or the facts not material such that summary judgment was warranted. Neither did the trial court address any of [plaintiffs’] arguments that the ‘as is’ clause did not relieve [defendant] of liability. As such, we are left to wonder as to what facts and law the trial court relied upon in ruling. Such scant reasoning and explanation is simply insufficient for this Court to decipher how the trial court reached its decision.

Accordingly, summary judgment was vacated.

This case is the latest in a line of cases requiring trial courts to provide sufficient reasoning in their summary judgment orders. If a summary judgment motion is decided in your favor by a trial court, it is vital to ensure that the order meets the standards of Rule 56.04.  You can do that by filing a motion to alter or amend the judgment, gently explaining to the judge the potential issue with the ruling.

This opinion was released 4.5 months after oral arguments in this case.

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