For almost 20 years the standards governing a motion for summary judgment have been predicated upon the New Jersey Supreme Court decision of Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 142 N.J. 520, (1995).
Under Brill, the motion judge must determine whether, when the facts are viewed most favorably to the non-moving party, a genuine issue of material fact exists. If so, the motion must be denied.
Many times attorneys seeking to oppose a summary judgment motion will assert that, under the Brill standard, all that is needed to defeat a summary judgment motion is the presentation of any fact in dispute. However, a recent unpublished decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division clarified the Brill standard, specifically to the effect that the asserted fact in dispute must be a material fact, and that there must be a genuine dispute as to that fact. Alfano, Jr. v. Shaud, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No.: A-1379-11T2.
In the Alfano case there was a dispute over the length of an encounter between the plaintiff and a police officer. The plaintiff claimed he had been subjected to a 40 minute stop by the officer in connection with a parking violation. The plaintiff alleged this prolonged stop was evidence he was the target of political retribution. However, the municipality presented proof that the encounter, which was recorded, actually spanned only 9 minutes. The Court found that a nine minute interaction failed to comport with the plaintiff’s claim of a prolonged illegal detention, and further held that since the actual recording of the incident showed the encounter lasted only about 9 minutes, the plaintiff’s unsubstantiated claim of a 40 minute encounter was insufficient to defeat the defendant’s summary judgment motion.
Notably, the Court in Alfano held that when the moving party has carried its burden, the “opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” The Appellate Division reiterated that it is imperative that the trial Court find that there is a dispute as to a genuine material fact, not just some fact in issue.
The use of a summary judgment motion can be an effective tool for defense litigators, since the grant of summary judgment can be partially or totally dispositive of a case. The Appellate Court’s recognition in Alfano that in order to defeat a summary judgment motion the opposing party must demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute regarding a material fact is a welcome ruling on behalf of defendants seeking to utilize the summary judgment process.