Friday, May 09, 2014
More on Tolan and summary judgment
At the Civ Pro & Fed Courts Blog, Ed Brunet and John Parry comment on SCOTUS's per curiam/summary reversal/some other strange procedure in Tolan v. Cotton, the § 1983 summary judgment case I wrote about earlier this week. Ed and John note that this is the first SCOTUS victory for a civil rights plaintiff in a summary judgment case in quite awhile. I would argue that the effect of the decision, and the meaning we should draw from it, is wrapped up in the strange process the Court used to decide the case (whatever we call it--GVR, summary reversal, per curiam decision, or something else)
One possibility they propose is that this represents a change in the Court's attitude, a sharp reminder to lower courts to take seriously the requirement to identify obvious factual disputes and to deny summary judgment when evidence genuinely goes in competing directions. Doing so in a per curiam opinion signals that this is nothing new legally, but simply a reminder of what it is well-established courts are supposed to be doing all along. On the other hand, by doing so in a per curiam opinion without full briefing, the Court removes some of the precedential weight of the decision.
Another possibility Ed and John propose is that the Court was just looking to correct grievous error in a very simple case, making this one of those one-off cases in which SCOTUS corrects egregious error without a broader rulemaking goal. But if that was the goal, the Court could have genuinely GVR'd the case or issued a summary reversal. By also writing an opinion--even per curiam--identifying the factual disputes and the conflicting evidence showing those disputes, the Court arguably is trying to do more: Demonstrating the appropriate analysis and trying to pull lower courts into line.
As I said earlier, I believe much depends on how the Court decides Plumhoff v. Rickard and the analysis the Court uses to get there. If the Court speaks, a la Scott v. Harris, about some testimony being "blatantly contradicted" by the record and thus insufficient to create factual disputes, that will remove a lot of the force from Tolan as a major summary judgment decision. If the Court rules for the defendant (as I expect) without a lot of focus on summary judgment, it may leave Tolan more room to do something.