Tennessee Trial Judges Must Make Findings of Fact and State Legal Basis for Summary Judgment Before Instructing Party to Prepare Order

Posted on Jan 3 2016 4:03PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision dealt with a case where a Trial Judge granted Summary Judgment on behalf of a defendant and instructed the parties to prepare an Order without first making any findings of fact or providing a legal basis for the Court’s decision.  The case of Bobby McEarl v. City of Brownsville, No. W2015-00077-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 6773544 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015) was a premises liability case where the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant.  However, the Court did not explain its ruling.  Instead, the Court simply stated “I don’t think – I don’t think the city is responsible here. I am granting the defendant’s motion.”  The trial court then instructed the parties to prepare competing orders for the court to review.  The Court ultimately adopted an order granting summary judgment for various reasons.


The question on appeal was whether this method for deciding a motion for summary judgment was appropriate under Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 56.04.  This rule provides as follows:


The motion shall be served at least thirty (30) days before the time fixed for the hearing. The adverse party may serve and file opposing affidavits not later than five days before the hearing. Subject to the moving party’s compliance with Rule 56.03, the judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. The trial court shall state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion, which shall be included in the order reflecting the court's ruling. A summary judgment, interlocutory in character, may be rendered on the issue of liability alone although there is a genuine issue as to the amount of damages. 


Additionally, the Tennessee Supreme Court rendered a decision in 2014 discussing this rule of civil procedure in the Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., 439 S.W.3d 303 (Tenn. 2014) decision. The Tennessee Supreme Court provided direction to Tennessee trial courts that they are required to state the legal grounds upon which the Court denies or grants a motion for summary judgment. This is a mandatory requirement. 


As a result, the Tennessee Court of Appeals in the McEarl case found the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be vacated and the case must be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.  The summary judgment, as decided, could not stand under these circumstances.  Obviously, the trial court could simply rehear the summary judgment motion and issue the exact same ruling after explaining the legal basis for the ruling.  That would cure the situation.  In fact, while this rule is certainly important to increase faith in our judicial system, I expect the rule will never have any actual real impact when the case is overturned on this basis on appeal.  Certainly Tennessee trial judges will simply rehear the motion and make the exact same ruling, with explanation.


Regardless, it is important for litigators on both the plaintiff and defense sides to know that if the Court grants a motion for summary judgment in your favor, you need to make sure the Court explains its factual and legal findings supporting the ruling in detail.  Otherwise, the case will be reversed on appeal at great expense and cost to your clients.  Further, the case will be significantly delayed (usually 9 months to 1 year) due to the appeal over this issue. 


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

TAGS: Civil Procedure, 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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Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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