O’Brien v. Synnott, 2013 VT 33
At its most basic level, summary judgment is a way for a trial court to say, “So what?” If the facts of a case don’t support a claim or defense, then the trial court can dispose of the matter without trial or further fanfare. One of my favorite college professors used to say: “There are two correct answers when it comes to law: ‘it depends’ and ‘judicial economy.’” The concept of summary judgment is intimately related to the latter “correct answer.”
Summary judgment is granted when there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. That’s the kind of phrase we memorize when we’re fresh-hatched baby lawyers; a phrase that you’d incorporate into a Chatty Cathy—Lawyer Edition.
But what does it really mean? Simply put, “no genuine dispute of material fact” means that neither party disputes the significant facts of the case. It doesn’t mean there are no factual disputes; it just means that all the facts on which the parties agree (or have conceded to) support or don’t support a claim or defense, and therefore require the court to rule only one way (that’s the matter of law piece).