Court Applies Final Judgment Review Standard to Grant of Summary Judgment

When no jury is demanded, does a district court have more leeway in granting summary judgment? The Eleventh Circuit explained the question in its July 26 opinion in Florida International University Board of Trustees v. Florida National University, Inc., 2016 WL 4010164 (11th Cir. July 26, 2016), affirming the district court’s judgment in favor of the defendant, Florida National University, Inc. (“FNU”). The case concerned FNU’s alleged trademark infringement of Florida International University’s (“FIU”) name and registered trademarks.  The district court granted defendant FNU’s summary judgment motion, finding that FIU failed to carry its burden of proving a likelihood of consumer confusion caused by the defendant’s change of its name from “Florida National College” to “Florida National University.”  The district court had considered the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment and determined that, because the case would be decided in a bench trial and there were no credibility issues, trial on the merits would not assist in making the factual determinations, so the court could make factual determinations and draw inferences at the summary judgment stage based on the written record submitted by the parties with their motions.  FIU appealed and asked the Eleventh Circuit to reverse and remand with instructions to enter judgment in its favor.  Although the Eleventh Circuit found that the district court had mischaracterized the precedent on which it relied, it nevertheless held that this case fell within the “limited circumstances wherein the district court may treat cross-motions for summary judgment as a trial and resolve the case on the merits.” (quoting Ga. State Conf. of NAACP v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 775 F.3d 1336, 1345–46 (11th Cir. 2015)).

Prior to their scheduled bench trial, the parties had met with the district court for a status conference. At that conference, the court directly asked the parties whether they had additional evidence to present at trial that was not included in the “many submissions” already made.  In response, FIU’s counsel indicated that the court would not “learn anything new at trial that [it had] not already seen from both sides” and further that the record of undisputed facts was sufficient to “make a summary judgment decision that in essence is going to be a bench trial decision.”  Counsel for both sides agreed to proceed with a hearing “in the form of either a closing or a summary judgment argument,” and the court agreed to conduct a hearing for the parties to summarize their pleadings “instead of” holding a bench trial with live witnesses.  FIU’s counsel also indicated it understood that, in this process, the district court would determine any remaining disputed facts, and, after the hearing had been completed, counsel did not plan to call any live witnesses.

The Eleventh Circuit explained that the decidedly more deferential standard of review is appropriate when the parties intended to submit the case to the district court for final resolution rather than for summary judgment and when the district court actually decided the case on that basis. Three critical factors weigh in this analysis:  (1) whether the district court held a hearing on the motions and fully developed the factual record; (2) whether the parties expressly stipulated to an agreed set of facts; and (3) whether the record reflects the parties’ intent to submit the case to the court for trial on the agreed statement of facts and limited record.

The court distinguished a prior decision, Useden v. Acker, 947 F.2d 1563, 1572–73 (11th Cir. 1991), where it had declined to apply a relaxed standard of review for cases in which the district court judge, rather than a jury, would be the ultimate trier of fact were the action to proceed to trial.  Here, in contrast, the court explained (1) the parties had consented to allow the district court to find facts and render a final judgment on the stipulated record; (2) both the court and the parties intended to substituted the final summary judgment hearing for a bench trial; and (3) the appellant sought only a remand for entry of final judgment in its favor, rather than remand for a trial on the merits.

Although the district court had opened its opinion with an explanation of the summary judgment standard, the Eleventh Circuit found that the court had effectively conducted a bench trial on a stipulated record because the court plainly drew inferences against the non-moving party and resolved factual disputes throughout its opinion. Accordingly, in affirming, the Eleventh Circuit applied the standard of review for final judgments, reviewing conclusions of law de novo and findings of fact for clear error.

Posted by Danny Wells.

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