Examining How Smith v. UHS of Lakeside Is Impacting Summary Judgment

January 28, 2016

In July 2014, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued its opinion in Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., 439 S.W.3d 303 (2014). The opinion addressed the correct procedure for a trial court to rule on summary judgment motions. In beginning its analysis, the Supreme Court noted that the appeal required it to address three important procedural principles:

1.) The principle reflected in Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 that a trial court must state the grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion for summary judgment, which shall be included in the order reflecting the court’s ruling;
2.) The principle that after the court decides the summary judgment ruling, the trial court may authorize counsel to prepare and submit a proposed order for the trial court’s consideration;
3.) The principle that courts speak through their orders, judgments, and minute entries. Id. at 312.

The Court noted that Rule 56.04 was amended in 2002 and 2007 to permit a party to request the trial court to state the legal grounds for its decision and thereafter, to require that the trial court state the legal grounds in both the grant and denial of a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 313. The Court emphasized that the failure to adhere to the Rule complicates the ability of the appellate courts to review the trial court’s decision. Id. The Court went on to address the practice of trial courts requesting and considering proposed orders prepared by the prevailing party. Id. at 316. The Court held that Rule 56.04 requires the trial courts, 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. Id.

Almost a year and a half later, what has the impact of this opinion been? The case has been cited twenty-eight times following its entry. To put that number into context, the Tennessee Court of Appeals between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, the last time such data was provided on the Administrative office of the Courts’ website, issued approximately 687 opinions. The previous year, the Court of Appeals issued 776 opinions.  While the statistics do not include the number of opinions that related to a ruling on summary judgment, the number of citations to the Smith v. UHS of Lakeside opinion are not overwhelming. Thus, if one was to answer the question based solely upon the number of times the case had been discussed in subsequent Court of Appeals’ opinions, the answer might be that it had little impact on summary judgment jurisprudence.

However, when one looks to the cases that have cited the Smith opinion, it becomes evident how important the opinion is and how very critical it is for the trial court to abide by its instructions. It also becomes clear that lawyers themselves should work to insure that the trial court is abiding by the instructions of Smith and Rule 56.04.  For example, in a case discussed in last month’s Tort Law Letter, McEarl v. City of Brownsville, No. W2015-00077-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 6773544 (Nov. 6, 2015), the Court of Appeals vacated the order of the trial court granting summary judgment. The Court noted that while the Smith decision had been issued shortly after the hearing on the motion for summary judgment in that case, the Court was bound to apply Smith. The Court found that the trial court made no factual findings or legal grounds for its decision that the defendant was not responsible, and that the parties admitted at the oral argument that the trial court requested proposed orders from each of them and ultimately chose to use the proposed order submitted by the defendant, which contained detailed legal findings that were not issued by the trial court during its oral ruling.

Likewise, in Hardy v. Tennessee State Univ., No. M2013-02103-COA-R3CV, 2014 WL 4181024, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 22, 2014), the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment finding that the order does not state the legal grounds for the grant of summary judgment, and did not provide any factual findings relative to the various causes of action asserted by the plaintiff and defenses raised by defendants. The same result was seen in Potter’s Shopping Ctr., Inc. v. Szekely, 461 S.W.3d 68, 72 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014), where the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment at issue where the record did not include a transcript,  the filings indicated several disputed facts, the action involved questions of law that require analysis and explanation, and the trial court’s order did not state the legal grounds or recite any evidence or argument considered in granting summary judgment.

The true impact of Smith v. UHS of Lakeside may not be seen in the appellate court arguments, but in the courtrooms across the State where trial judges have been reminded of the proper procedure to follow when granting or denying summary judgment, which requires them to fully state the basis for their ruling including the legal basis and factual findings considered. Attorneys should be warned by the opinions issued by the Court of Appeals and avoid taking part in the preparation of submitted order that may result in a vacated judgment. Trial judges must perform their own adjudicative functions, and cannot delegate those to the lawyers for the “winning” side.