Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

Race to Judgment? an Empirical Study of Scott V. Harris and Summary Judgment

Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

Race to Judgment? an Empirical Study of Scott V. Harris and Summary Judgment

Article excerpt


In three of the most cited cases in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court strongly encouraged the use of summary judgment as an efficient way to rid the federal dockets of frivolous claims before expensive trials. (1) After this trilogy of decisions, scholars expressed concern about the heavy use of summary judgment. (2) Two decades later, most of the judicial and scholarly world seemed content again with the state of summary judgment. (3) Then came Scott v. Harris. (4) With a video link included underneath the Supreme Court's decision, it is hard to imagine a more modern test of the relationship between judges, evidence, and summary judgment.

Summary judgment is perhaps the most important tool in evaluating the legal sufficiency of a claim. Once a judge grants a summary judgment motion, the claim is barred from a jury. (5) A granted motion also bars the cause of action for purposes of claim and issue preclusion. (6) Because the impact of summary judgment is expansive, the way federal courts decide summary judgment motions ultimately determines whether a claim continues to a jury or, perhaps, a lucrative settlement. Therefore, the legal community understandably takes notice when it appears that the summary judgment framework has changed.

In reading Scott, one thing becomes obvious: the majority relied heavily upon a videotape portraying a high-speed car chase in reversing the lower courts' denials of summary judgment. (7) The defendants' summary judgment motion concerned the plaintiffs argument that a police officer had used excessive force during the chase, (8) While both lower courts discussed other evidence, including testimony from the parties, (9) the Supreme Court needed only one short grainy tape to make its conclusion: the officer's actions, which resulted in severe and lasting injuries to the plaintiff, were reasonable under the circumstances and thus did not constitute excessive force. (10) In this decision, the Supreme Court did not make an express change to summary judgment rules. (11) However, many scholars are concerned that the Court's lenient attitude toward summary judgment will have a substantive effect on summary judgment decisions. (12)

In interpreting Scott, scholars have disagreed about the scope of the decision. Does it signal another large increase in the granting of all summary judgment motions? (13) Or is its impact limited to cases that are factually similar? (14) This Note seeks to answer these questions through an empirical study. The study analyzes how district courts--the initial decision makers confronted with summary judgment motions--have used Scott. The rates of district court decisions on 56(c) motions for summary judgment provide a useful first look at Scott's impact.

The results of this study suggest three conclusions. First, Scott has had little to no substantive impact on summary judgment rates overall. Second, there has been a significant decrease in denial rates in those cases that cite to Scott, suggesting that Scott does have an impact within a limited scope. Third, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of cases dealing with videotape evidence after Scott. (15) In exploring these results, this Note proceeds in four parts. Part I provides context for the study by examining the state of summary judgment before and after Scott as well as discussing the literature's response to Scott. Part II presents the methodology of the empirical study while Part III presents the results. Part IV offers several explanations for the results suggested by the study.


A. History and Development of Summary Judgment

According to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a court should grant a summary judgment motion if "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. …

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