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Rye In Action: Tennessee’s New Summary-Judgment Standard is Here to Stay and Already Changing the Status Quo

Tennessee’s recent return to the federal summary-judgment standard has been the subject of two prior posts by Butler Snow lawyers (here and here). Just before Christmas, the Tennessee Court of Appeals put the new standard to work in Steele v. Primehealth Medical Center, P.C., demonstrating that the standard is here to stay and already changing the status quo.

As previously discussed, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded on October 26, 2015 that Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co., a 2008 decision in which the court adopted a different standard, “had functioned in practice to frustrate the purposes for which summary judgment was intended—a rapid and inexpensive means of resolving issues and cases about which there is no genuine issue regarding material facts.” The court consequently “t[ook] th[e] opportunity” in Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis “to correct course, overrule Hannan, and fully embrace the [federal] standard[ ][.]” Under Rye,

in Tennessee, as in the federal system, when the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden of production either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party’s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving party’s claim or defense.

The change is more than mere gloss. “Rather than placing the burden on the moving party to prove that the nonmoving party will never be able to prove his or her case at trial,” as Hannan had done, “the [Rye] standard, like its federal counterpart, now requires that [the nonmoving party] . . . set forth specific facts [at the summary judgment stage] showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Whether the Rye court restored the federal standard for the reasons recited by the majority or in deference to the Tennessee General Assembly’s legislative reversal of Hannan in 2011, as decried by the dissent, remains an open question. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-16-101. Regardless, the Court of Appeals’s Yuletide decision in Steele illustrates the significance of the new standard for Tennessee litigants.

Steele, itself, is unremarkable: The plaintiffs were a delivery man, who fell while delivering office supplies to a medical center, and his wife. They claimed that the man “suffered great bodily harm as a result of the fall” and that the medical center had been negligent because it failed to warn pedestrians about or to make safe “an unmarked dropoff in the sidewalk.” The medical center produced expert testimony to the effect that the “dropoff” did not violate applicable building codes. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, failed to identify an opposing expert in accordance with the trial court’s scheduling order. The trial court thus held that the plaintiffs could not prove that the dropoff was a dangerous condition and granted summary judgment in the medical center’s favor.

Relevant here, however, is that in affirming the trial court’s decision in Steele, the Court of Appeals not only applied Rye but also located Rye within a broader context of pre-Hannan and federal summary-judgment jurisprudence. Relying on Cagle v. Gaylord Entertainment Co., a 2002 decision in which the court previously had affirmed a grant of summary judgment, the Court of Appeals concluded that the record in Steele contained no proof of any kind “that the design and construction of the curb [at issue] . . . created an unsafe, dangerous, or perilous condition.” “People fall all the time,” the court explained, quoting a 2013 case from the federal district court for the Middle District of Tennessee. “[T]his does not perforce mean that the fall was due to another’s negligence.” The Court of Appeals then held that the medical center had discharged its burden “by demonstrating that Plaintiffs’ evidence at the summary judgment stage was insufficient to establish their claim for negligence.

Steele therefore stands for two significant propositions. First, despite Hannan’s brief and now-undone intervention, the restored federal summary-judgment standard fits neatly within the existing framework for summary judgment as applied by courts in Tennessee. The new standard’s staying power is thus considerable. Second, whether truly attributable to the legislature or to the courts, Tennessee’s return to the federal standard has meaningful consequences for Tennessee litigants that already are being felt.

Gadson William (Will) Perry

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