Tennessee Supreme Court Recently Ruled that Trial Courts Must Explain The Basis for Ruling on a Motion for Summary Judgment Before it Invites or Requests Counsel to Draft the Order

Posted on Jul 28 2014 9:45PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Analysis:  On July 15, 2014 the Tennessee Supreme Court provided an important new opinion that will modify the way many trial courts handle ruling on motions for summary judgment.  The case of Mary C. Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., No. W2011-02405-SC-R11-CV, 2014 WL 3429204 (Tenn. 2014), dealt with a situation where a trial court granted two motion for summary judgment on behalf of the defendants.  The details of this health care liability cause of action are not important to be able to evaluate the importance of this opinion.  The details of what happened at the motion for summary judgment rulings are, however, very important. 


After the trial court ruled on two motions for summary judgment the court then directed defense counsel to prepare the orders explaining the trial court’s ruling.  The Supreme Court discussed the trial court’s statements to counsel as follows: 


The trial court then observed that “the appellate court is going to want a rationale from our rulings.” Accordingly, the trial court stated, “As far as a basis for the ruling, I'm going to let you [Lakeside's counsel] make those.... And in the same way [p]laintiff's counsel can then, you were successful on EMTALA, outrageous conduct and the negligent infliction of emotional distress, the motions in which you were successful, you'll prepare the order and the rationale for the Court's ruling.”


Smith at 5.  At the second hearing the trial court once again ruled on the pending motion for summary judgment and stated:


I'm ruling now. I think I've heard ample discussion on this. And I'm directing the [d]efendant to prepare the order and to establish the rationale for the [c]ourt's ruling in quite specific detail, and let this go forward as quickly as possible to the [a]ppellate [c]ourt.


So basically at both hearings, the trial court did not provide detail about the basis or reasoning for its ruling on the motions for summary judgment.  It simply relied upon counsel to draft an order explaining the rationale for the trial court’s ruling.  The granting of the motions for summary judgment was therefore appealed and the appeal ultimately came to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  The Tennessee Supreme Court discussed the fact that over the last 30 years the Court has allowed findings of fact, conclusions of law, opinions and orders to be submitted by counsel to the judge. Smith at 10, 11.  However, the Tennessee Supreme Court noted it continues “to adhere to the view that findings of fact, conclusions of law, opinions, and orders prepared by trial judges themselves are preferable to those prepared by counsel.”  Smith at 10.


The Court then reviewed the various concerns about having counsel prepare orders for the court.  However, it found Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 is not “inconsistent with the custom of permitting trial courts to request and consider proposed orders prepared by the prevailing party.”  Smith at 12.  Regardless, the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure “must be interpreted in a way that assures that a trial court’s decision whether to grant or deny a motion for summary judgment is its own.”  Smith at 12.


As a result, the Tennessee Supreme Court made a very important holding which will change the way motions for summary judgments are ruled on in many courts across Tennessee.  The Court stated that:


We conclude that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 requires the trial court, 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.  Not only will this requirement assure that the decision is the trial court's, it will also (1) assure the parties that the trial court independently considered their arguments, (2) enable the reviewing courts to ascertain the basis for the trial court's decision, and (3) promote independent, logical decision-making.


(emphasis added) Smith at 12.  As a result, in the Smith case at bar, the Court noted that the trial court did not provide insight into the basis for its rulings granting the motions for summary judgment prior to the time it asked counsel for an order explaining the court’s ruling.  The trial court simply asked the defendant’s attorney to craft orders supporting the trial court’s ruling.  As a result, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that the motion for summary judgment granted by the trial court in this case should be reversed due to the failure of the trial court to properly explain the motion for summary judgment ruling. Smith at 13.


The practical effect of this decision is that trial judges must either verbally or in writing explain the basis for their ruling on a motion for summary judgment before it invites or requests counsel to prepare proposed orders.  In my opinion this is a very good change which encourages trial courts to carefully consider the basis for granting or denying motions for summary judgment.  In this opinion the Tennessee Supreme Court referred to ruling on motions for summary judgment as a “high judicial function” and such rulings must be the result of “the exercise of the trial court’s own judgment”.  Smith at 8. 


From a practical perspective, it is very important for counsel to know about this new ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  If your motion for summary judgment is granted but the trial court does not explain the basis for its decision before asking you to draft the order, you must be prepared to remind the court of this ruling so that the summary judgment is not later reversed because of the trial court’s failure to independently explain the ruling.  It is still best for the trial court to author the entire motion for summary judgment order under this new precedent, however the Tennessee Supreme Court did not completely forbid attorneys input in proposed orders.  Eventually, I believe we are headed towards a requirement that trial judges author the entire motion for summary judgment order and I think that is best.  I am an advocate for this change which is one step farther then the Court took in this case.  Moving to this system would force trial judges to put forth maximum thought and consideration into these very substantive rulings.  As the number of cases filed in Tennessee continue to drop year after year, hopefully trial judges will have more time to be able to craft detailed orders on substantive motions.  It will increase the public’s confidence and faith in the judiciary which is of supreme importance as the reputation of the court system and attorneys continues to erode across the country.

Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Defense Litigation blog.

TAGS: Summary Judgment
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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