Summary judgement motions in New York are strange things. When used in the right way they can bring long, arduous litigation to an end merely by submitting papers to the court, without the need to call messy witnesses, susceptible to skillful cross-examination, to trial to be judged by a jury. They can be a lawyer’s best friend, or worst enemy. A lot depends upon the approach a lawyer takes towards them. They can take the place of a trial but how you approach them should be much like a trial. The actual motion depends upon the facts and circumstances of the particular case. There is an acronym that sums it up, one I often say to myself: KISS (as in: keep it simple, stupid). There’s also an apt idiom: break it down. Like a trial, it’s important to stay focused and to keep the decision makers focused on what you believe is important; because you have to give them a reason to rule in your client’s favor.
The legal standard in New York for succeeding on, and for defeating, a motion for summary judgement, is pretty clear. To win a motion for summary judgement, a party has to show that it is entitled to judgement as a matter of law. That sounds right, even if it is kind of a definition without a meaning. What it really means is that there cannot be any material issue of triable fact. That sounds a little more definite; after all, there are more complex, legalistic terms in that definition than in the first. But is it really clear? This is the first place to break it down: it means that there cannot be any real reason to go to trial. If there is something important for the jury to decide, something important enough that the way the jury decides it will go a long way towards determining whether one party or the other will win or lose the case, then that is where you are going: to trial. See Zuckerman v. City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 720 (1980).