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  • Writer's pictureMary Watson Smith

New LASC Case Provides Some Wiggle Room in Opposing Motions for Partial Summary Judgment

Zapata v. Seal is a new Louisiana Supreme Court case that all civil practitioners need to keep tucked away in their back pocket to review more closely when they are litigating a motion for partial summary judgment. It could provide you with an avenue to relitigate the "decided" issue down the line (if the judgment is not designated as final). On the flip side, if you win a motion for partial summary judgment, you might want to consider requesting that the judgment be designated as final so that you're not in the position of litigating the issue again prior to trial.

Defendants in this case filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking to dismiss claims that a lower back surgery undergone by one of the Plaintiffs was necessitated by the accident. Plaintiffs moved to continue the summary judgment hearing. In the interim, Plaintiff underwent a medical examination by a doctor. Twelve days before the hearing (instead of 15 days), Plaintiffs filed an opposition attaching the doctor's report to support their assertion that the accident aggravated Plaintiff's preexisting lower back injuries and necessitated the surgery. Defendants filed a reply arguing that the opposition (and all attachments thereto) should be stricken because the opposition was untimely. Note: It probably also should have been stricken because it wasn't in affidavit form. The trial court struck the opposition and granted partial summary judgment (the "September 2018 judgment"). But the judgment was not designated a final judgment pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B).

Plaintiffs then filed a motion to reconsider or, alternatively, a motion for new trial. Trial court denied the motion because a party can only request a motion for new trial on a final judgment.

About nine months later, Plaintiffs filed a motion to vacate the September 2018 judgment, attaching in support an affidavit from the doctor executed several months earlier. Defendants opposed, arguing it would be improper for the trial court to disregard the time limitations set forth in La. C.C.P. art. 966(B) to consider evidence available to Plaintiffs prior to the original hearing on the motion for partial summary judgment. After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court vacated the September 2018 judgment because the judgment was not designated as final pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B) and found that the doctor's affidavit created a genuine issue of material fact.

Defendants took a writ, essentially arguing that the deadlines in La. C.C.P. art. 966 are iron clad and that the district court didn't have discretion to vacate the judgment nine months later. The First Circuit denied the writ. LASC granted the writ and just issued its ruling, affirming the district court's judgment:

The plain language of La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B)(2) provides that, absent determination and designation as a final judgment, a partial summary judgment adjudicating less than all of the claims at issue “may be revised at any time prior to the rendition of the judgment adjudicating all the claims and the rights and liabilities of all the parties.” See La. C.C. art. 9; Louisiana Mun. Ass’n v. State, 04-0227, p. 35 (La. 1/19/05), 893 So.2d 809, 836-37 (“interpretation of a statute starts with the language of the statute itself”); Vasalle, 01-0462, p. 5, 801 So.3d at 334. The trial court’s astute rulings illustrate how this provision may be harmonized with the time limitations of summary judgment procedure. See Louisiana Mun. Ass’n, 04-0227,p. 36, 893 So.2d at 837 (further observing courts must give effect to all provisions of a statute and not render an interpretation that makes any part superfluous or meaningless). Adhering to La. C.C.P. art. 966(B)(2), the trial court struck the Zapatas’ opposition and supporting exhibits and granted partial summary judgment in favor of DWL. It is undisputed that this was not a final judgment – the Zapatas’ motion for new trial was denied for this reason. The trial court subsequently exercised its discretion under La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B)(2) in vacating the September 2018 judgment which it was statutorily empowered to do “at any time” because the judgment was not final.
Finality may be achieved by requesting a trial court to designate a partial summary judgment as final.4 Because the language of the code as written provides such a remedy, we decline to adopt an interpretation of La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B) that would effectively amend the article to include the “new evidence” standard of La. C.C.P. art. 1972(2). See Whitley v. State ex. rel. Bd. of Sup’rs of Louisiana State University Agr. Mechanical College, 11-0040, p. 18 (La. 7/1/11), 66 So.3d 470, 481 (declining to judicially impose requirements not mandated by the legislature); see also Fraternal Order of Police v. City of New Orleans, 02-1801, pp. 3-4 (La. 11/8/02), 831 So.2d 897, 899 (declining to read the seven-day time delay under La. C.C.P. art. 1974 into La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B) where no such delay exists to file a motion to certify a partial judgment as final). Rewriting statutes is not the role of the courts. Kelly v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 14-1921, p. 20 (La. 5/5/15), 169 So.3d 328, 340. Accordingly, we find the trial court was within its discretion in vacating the September 2018 judgment.

This case is important broadly speaking because it signals that there are at least four votes on LASC for the position that those Art. 966 deadlines are not completely sacrosanct at the expense of the rest of the Code of Civil Procedure. It also provides some wiggle room if you're unsuccessful in opposing a motion for partial summary judgment if the judgment is not designated as final. The converse is, if you win a motion for partial summary judgment, you might want to try to get that puppy designated as final under La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B) ("with an express determination that there's no just reason for delay") so that the trial court can't grant a motion to vacate down the line. I say might because, if you do that, the judgment becomes immediately appealable (instead of writ-able). Just another thing to weigh.

You can check out the full opinion here.

Congratulations to Brian Trainor and Chuck Hughes for excellent advocacy in front the LASC. A great win!

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