30th Anniversary of The U.S. Supreme Court’s Summary Judgment Trilogy (June 25, 1986)

  • June 24, 2016

To be effective lawyers, sometimes we have to be a little bit nerdy.  We have to read lots of statutes and cases to provide legal clarity and best represent our clients.US Supreme Court Reports - books

Thirty years ago, the United States Supreme Court handed down a trio of decisions that dramatically changed the way in which lawyers argue and judges decide motions for summary judgment in state and federal courts, including Nevada and California. The trio of decisions issued June 24, 1986, were the following:


  1. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-27 (6/25/1986) — established new burdens of production, persuasion, and proof for summary judgment motions, and held that a defendant moving for a summary judgment only needs to show that the plaintiff lacks evidence to support a required element of its case.


  1. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257 (6/25/1986) — authorized the use of a heightened evidentiary burden of proof which would be applicable at trial when ruling on a pre-trial motion for  summary judgment — for example, the burden of “clear and convincing evidence” to prove a defendant’s actual malice in a public figure libel case.


  1. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 596-98 (3/26/1986) – decided three months earlier — ruled that  the court may dismiss an inherently implausible antitrust claim based on an alleged conspiracy to fix predatory prices. “If the factual context renders respondents’ claims implausible, i.e., claims that make no economic sense, respondents must offer more persuasive evidence to support their claims than would otherwise be necessary.”


Perhaps we are nerds for celebrating the evolution of civil practice which has taken place in the wake of the summary judgment trilogy 30 years ago.  But these cases and the impact they have had on state and federal practice are critical to the way in which we plan litigation and assess the viability of pretrial motions designed to end cases as soon as possible. Before the trilogy of cases, there was a long history of state and federal court decisions which made summary judgment practice often ineffective except in the narrowest kinds of cases. Following the summary judgment trilogy, the use of summary judgment motions has attained its proper status as a viable tool to ensure the just and speedy resolution of all civil cases, consistent with rules of civil procedure.  These cases are a focal point of civil practice and the little lawyer nerds in us would like to share their importance with our readers.