Every week or two, the federal court in Connecticut is asked to decide a motion for summary judgment in a discrimination case. I’ve yet to discuss what these motions are in detail on this blog, but a recent federal case in Connecticut provides a good learning example.
To simplify (drastically?) a federal court case in Connecticut, after a lawsuit is filed by an employee and responded to by the defendant/employer, the parties engage in what is called discovery — interrogatories, requests for production and depositions — all in the hopes of getting information that can help them at trial.
But at the end of discovery — before a trial happens — the parties (and typically the defendant) have an opportunity to file a “motion for summary judgment.” Such a motion is the defendant’s chance to say, “Based on the undisputed facts, we should win on the law.” Or, in other words, there’s no need for a trial.
What people unfamiliar with the legal process often misunderstand, however, is that the court isn’t merely looking at the law in deciding whether the case merits a trial. Rather, the court first looks to see whether all the material (or, in plain English, important) facts are undisputed.
If there are genuine disagreements as to key factual issues, then the case has to go to a trial to let a jury or judge decide the key facts.
A car accident case is the easiest way to understand this. Suppose there is an accident at an intersection and the key issue is who had the right of way. Driver A says the light was green. Driver B says light was red. Witness C says the light had just turned yellow. In this situation, there is a genuine issue as to what color the light was and therefore, who had the right of way. It’ll be up to a jury to weigh the evidence and decide who is to blame for the accident.