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March 16, 2017

Holy Surprises & Saving Graces: Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 56(d).

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The early-in-the-case Rule 56 motion. Note the well-dressed Brit General Counsel taking a bullet.

Rule 56
.....
(d) When Facts Are Unavailable to the Nonmovant. If a nonmovant shows by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, the court may:

(1) defer considering the motion or deny it;
(2) allow time to obtain affidavits or declarations or to take discovery; or
(3) issue any other appropriate order.

Trial lawyers, in-house counsel and law students know that Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or summary judgment, gives a litigant an opportunity to win on its claims or dispose of the opponent's claims relatively quickly and without trial. Accompanied by sworn affidavits, and most often discovery responses, a Rule 56 motion tries to show that there is no real dispute about key facts and that the movant is entitled to judgment under the law. If the trial court grants it, the movant wins on those claims.

But what if a summary judgment motion is brought against your client suddenly and early in the case and the local rules of the district court don't give you much time to develop and prepare an opposition? After all, Rule 56 lets a party who has brought a claim file for summary judgment after 20 days, and defendants can file "at any time".

It happens pretty frequently. Both plaintiffs and defendants make the motion early on. Defendants do it the most. No matter who moves early, or how it is eventually resolved by the district court, it's very disruptive. It will fluster even the most battle-hardened-been-there-seen-that GC or in-house counsel. It's an expensive little sideshow, too. Everyone in the responding camp hates life for a while.

Subdivision (d) of Rule 56, "When Facts Are Unavailable to the Nonmovant", provides a safeguard against premature grants of summary judgment. Some good lawyers seem either to not know about--or to not use--subdivision (d) of Rule 56. In short, you file your own motion and affidavit--there are weighty sanctions if you misuse the rule, so be careful--stating affidavits by persons with knowledge needed to oppose the motion are "not available", and stating why. (More senior lawyers may know this provision as Rule 56(f); it was re-lettered in the 2010 amendments to the federal rules.)

The federal district court can then (1) deny the request and make you oppose the motion, (2) refuse to grant the motion or do what you really want it to do: (3) grant a continuance so that you can develop facts and, better yet, take depositions or conduct other discovery. Granted, it's a rule that delays, but if used correctly, Rule 56(d) can give you the breathing room and time you need to develop the client's case--not to mention avoiding the granting of summary judgment.

Posted by JD Hull at March 16, 2017 12:51 AM

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