A Defendant Can Get Summary Judgment Without Producing Evidence

24 August 2015 Wisconsin Appellate Law Blog

The Supreme Court explained in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986), that a party can obtain for summary judgment when its opponent has no evidence to support an element of the opponent’s case. Justice Brennan’s dissent warned then that the opinion would “create confusion” among district courts. Fast forward nearly thirty years, and that “confusion” appears to be playing out. The Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Spierer v. Rossman, No. 14-3171 (7th Cir. Aug. 14, 2015), written by Judge Manion, is the latest example.

The tragic events underlying the case began four years ago when, after a night of partying at Indiana University, Lauren Spierer went missing without a trace. Years later, Lauren’s fate and whereabouts still unknown, her parents sued the three classmates who were with her on the night of her disappearance. Lauren’s parents alleged that the classmates were negligent in supplying her with alcohol when she was already intoxicated and that their conduct violated Indiana’s Dram Shop Act.

The classmates moved to dismiss, and the district court granted their motion in part. Lauren’s parents then “cast a wide net on discovery,” seeking depositions from two defendants and 12 non-parties located in more than four cities. But, before they could obtain that discovery, the remaining defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the parents had no proof that the defendants had proximately caused harm to Lauren. Disappearance is not a legally recognized injury, and there was no proof that Lauren’s classmates caused her any harm.

Instead of providing proof of proximate cause or filing a sufficient Rule 56(d) declaration (one of which would have defeated and the other delayed the motion for summary judgment), Lauren’s parents filed a “boilerplate” declaration that failed to “identify[] specific evidence needed to respond to defendants’ motion,” and they actually responded to the summary-judgment motion. When pressed at the hearing on the motion about whether they needed more evidence to respond, they told the court that “[w]e’re not asking for anything to respond to summary judgment.” Apparently their attorneys believed that the classmates’ motion would fail because it was not supported by affidavits or other evidence.

They were mistaken.

Celotex governed this case once the classmates pointed to the deficiency in the parents’ case. When Lauren’s parents provided no evidence—either direct or circumstantial—that Lauren’s classmates proximately caused her harm, their claims could not survive summary judgment.

This opinion provides an important reminder concerning summary judgment. A defendant moving for summary judgment on the ground that a plaintiff has no evidence for an element of its claim need not submit affidavits “negating” the plaintiff’s claim. Pointing to the deficiency is enough to trigger a plaintiff’s duty to present evidence or an explanation of what specific further evidence is needed in discovery. Plaintiffs should not (as happened here) rest on the laurels of a motion-to-dismiss victory; the summary judgment standard is different.

Lauren’s parents learned that the hard way. While this case faced evidentiary obstacles from the start, their attorneys’ apparent misunderstanding of Celotex proved to be the bigger impediment.

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