Before Brill, There Was ….

Most New Jersey lawyers know that Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 142 N.J. 520 (1995), is the seminal case that states the standards for summary judgment.  But what did lawyers cite on this subject before 1995?  The answer is Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67 (1954), decided on this date in 1954.  That opinion, by Justice Brennan (who, shortly thereafter, would become United States Supreme Court Justice Brennan), traced the history and purposes of summary judgment, and set forth bedrock general principles that were cited in hundreds of cases thereafter.

Justice Brennan stated that summary judgment “is designed to provide a prompt, businesslike and inexpensive method of disposing of any cause which a discriminating search of the merits in the pleadings, depositions and admissons on file, together with the affidavits submitted on the motion clearly shows not to present any genuine issue of material fact requiring disposition at a trial….  “The standards of decision governing the grant or denial of a summary judgment emphasize that a party opposing a motion is not to be denied a trial unless the moving party sustains the burden of showing clearly the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.  At the same time, the standards are to be applied with discriminating care so as not to defeat a summary judgment if the movant is justly entitled to one.”

Under Judson, the movant had the “burden to exclude any reasonable doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact,” and the absence of undisputed material facts had to appear “palpably.”  “All inferences of doubt are drawn against the movant in favor of the opponent of the motion.  The papers supporting the motion are closely scrutinized and the opposing papers indulgently treated.”  However, “if the opposing party offers no affidavits or matter in opposition, or only facts which are immaterial or of an insubstantial nature … he will not be heard to complain if the court grants summary judgment.”  Nor could the opponent simply rely on his or her pleadings.  “Summary judgment procedure pierces the allegations of the pleadings to show that the facts are otherwise than alleged.”

Justice Brennan cautioned that “[i]ssues of credibility are ordinarily for the trier of fact, and the judge does not function as a trier of fact in determining a motion for summary judgment.”  And, in fraud cases, “a conclusion from papers alone that palpably there exists no genuine issue of material fact will ordinarily be very difficult ot sustain.  The telltale factor of demeanor in the presence of the trier of fact often assumes such vital importance in such cases that the opposing party should generally not be denied the opportunity to have the moving party, or its officers, appear on the witness stand before the trier of fact.”  In particular, “a note of caution has been sounded as to any case where the opposing party must prove his claim or defense from what he can draw from the other party.”

Many of those principles, in those same words or other words, were reiterated by Justice Coleman, who wrote for the Court in Brill.  That is so even though Brill also adopted “a new standard,” based on three United States Supreme Court decisions from 1986, under which “if the evidence is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law, the trial court should not hesitate to grant summary judgment.”  Justice Coleman simultaneously tried to tie Brill back to Judson, stating that the Court “may have permitted an encrustation of the Judson standard that obscured its essential import” and called for the revisitation of summary judgment standards in Brill.  In some ways, therefore, Brill cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of Judson.

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  1. […] discussed here, many veteran lawyers know of Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67 […]

  2. […] updating the standard for summary judgment, for which Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67 (1954), had long been the leading case.  Following the lead of a number of other […]

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