In an important opinion that may affect currently pending cases, the Tennessee Supreme Court in Rye v. Women’s Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC (Tenn. Oct. 26, 2015) reconsidered the high burden placed on defendants seeking summary judgment, ultimately overruling prior case law to conform to the federal standard as well as the statutory standard enacted by the Tennessee legislature in 2011. In Rye, the patient and her husband brought a health care liability action against an obstetrician and a hospital, arising out of treatment rendered to the patient while she was pregnant. Since the suit was filed in 2009, the lower courts evaluated the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on Hannan v. Alltel Publ’g Co., 270 S.W.3d 1 (Tenn. 2008), rather than Tenn. Code Ann. § 20–16–101 (Supp. 2014), which applies to actions filed on or after July 1, 2011. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the appeal and addressed the question of whether the summary judgment standard articulated in Hannan should be reconsidered for an action filed before July 1, 2011.
In the Rye opinion, the court reviewed the history of summary judgment in Tennessee, including the adoption of Rule 56 and prior case law, as well as the United States Supreme Court decisions in the Celotex trilogy discussing summary judgment standards. Although Tennessee Rule 56 was patterned upon Federal Rule 56, the court noted the “departure” of Tennessee law from the federal standard beginning in Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208 (Tenn. 1993), continuing in McCarley and subsequent decisions, and ultimately culminating in Hannan. In Hannan, the holding had created a particularly high standard for defendants seeking summary judgment, largely shifting the burden of production away from the plaintiff (who would bear the burden of proof at trial) onto the defendant. It essentially required the defendant to disprove the plaintiff’s claim. Recognizing this change, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted § 20–16–101 in 2011 with the stated purpose of overruling Hannan.
Mindful of the preferred course of adhering to prior decisions, while also acknowledging the “badly reasoned” precedent of former decisions, the Supreme Court in Rye explained that its oath is one to do justice, not perpetuate error. Therefore, in light of its determination that the summary judgment standard of Hannan is both unworkable and inconsistent with the history and text of Tennessee Rule 56, the court overruled Hannan and fully adopted the Federal Rule 56 standards articulated by the United States Supreme Court in the Celotex trilogy.
The Rye court reiterated that in a summary judgment motion, when the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it may satisfy its burden of production either by affirmatively negating an essential element of the non-moving party’s claim, or by demonstrating that the non-moving party’s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish its claim or defense. To survive a summary judgment motion, the non-moving party may not rely upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleading, but instead, it must show that there is a genuine issue for trial by setting forth specific facts by affidavits or one of the other means provided in Tennessee Rule 56. The focus is therefore on the evidence the non-moving party comes forward with at the summary judgment stage, not on hypothetical evidence that theoretically could be adduced should the case proceed to trial. Thus, applying the summary judgment standards articulated in the Celotex trilogy and in Tennessee Rule 56 to the facts of Rye, the court held that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on all claims raised on appeal.
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