Put Up or Shut Up is Back
In what is generally viewed as a win for defendants in lawsuits, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently reverted to a more lenient summary judgment standard used by courts in Tennessee prior to 2008.
A summary judgment motion is a procedural tool where a party (typically a defendant) can ask the court to “short circuit” a lawsuit by asking the court to dismiss the suit because there’s no dispute over any material fact, and the case can be resolved on legal grounds. In federal court, and in Tennessee state court prior to 2008, a defendant could prevail on a motion for summary judgment by simply pointing out that a plaintiff had insufficient evidence to support his claims, even if the court were to assume that all of that evidence was viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. In order to survive the motion and keep the lawsuit alive, the plaintiff would have to come forward and identify relevant evidence showing that an actual trial was, in fact, necessary. This summary judgment standard is often referred to as the “put up or shut up” standard since it required a party basically to go ahead and show his cards if he wanted to avoid a dismissal.
In its 2008 opinion in Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co., the Supreme Court drastically altered the summary standard to make it harder for a party to get a case dismissed prior to expending considerable time and expense on discovery. Rather than being able to argue that the plaintiff should “put up or shut up” during the pre-trial stage, the Supreme Court held that a defendant would instead have to affirmatively disprove the plaintiff’s claims in order to avoid a trial, and/or otherwise show that the plaintiff would not be able to prove his claims at the trial.
A few weeks ago, in Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis, the Tennessee Supreme Court essentially reversed itself, overruling Hannan, and stating that Tennessee courts would again apply the “put up or shut up” standard. The Court explained that in retrospect, it believed it had misapplied the law in Hannan, and further that the tougher summary judgment standard adopted in Hannan had proved to be unwise and unworkable in practice.
By reverting to the pre-Hannan “put up or shut up” standard, the Supreme Court made it much more likely that certain cases will be resolved on legal grounds without the need for a trial.