Analysis: The Tennessee Court of Appeals in the recent decision of Mary C. Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., No. W2011-02405-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 210250 (Tenn. Ct. App. January 18, 2013) discussed the requirement that a trial court state the legal grounds for summary judgment in the order. Specifically, Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 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.
In the Smith case, the trial court granted a motion for summary judgment and requested the defendant's attorney to prepare the order discussing the basis and support for the granting of the motion for summary judgment. Smith at 6 - 8. In fact, the trial court judge made the following comments on the record:
Now the appellate court is going to want a rationale from our rulings, so in the case of agency I'm going to let the, on the ones for which you were successful, I'm going to let you make proposed [orders].... As far as a basis for the ruling, I'm going to let you make those.
Smith at 6. These comments were directed at counsel for the defendant. The court then entered the proposed orders drafted by counsel for the defendant over the objections of the plaintiff. Smith at 6. The plaintiff therefore appealed the rulings of the court and asserted the court did not comply with Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04. The Tennessee Court of Appeals discussed prior cases on this issue and found:
Thus, party-prepared orders are appropriate so long as: (1) the trial court does not require counsel to prepare the orders; (2) the trial court carefully reviews the orders to ensure that the conclusions reliably reflect the court's opinion; (3) the orders dispose of all relevant issues; and (4) no matters not a proper part of the determination are included.
Smith at 9. The Appellate Court therefore found that the trial court acted improperly under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 because it directed one of the attorneys to draft the order. Additionally, the trial court asked that attorney to "establish the rationale for the trial court's decision." Smith at 6 and 10.
This is an important case because if you are counsel in a case where you are successful on a motion for summary judgment then it is important for you make sure the court complies with its Rule 56.04 duties for the order. This case is clear that although it may be very appealing to have the trial court order the victorious counsel to draft the order describing the reasons, basis and rationale for the granting of motion for summary judgment, that this situation may not actually comply with Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 and it could be subject to reversal on appeal. It is better for counsel to ensure the court complies with Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 so reversal is not likely. Reversal will only increase the cost of litigation and the length the case will be pending.