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What Is a Motion?

When you become involved in a lawsuit, you may want the court to agree to something outside of the normal litigation process. For example, you or your opponent may want the court to drop the case (motion to dismiss) or to decide the winner without having to undergo a full trial (motion for summary judgment). To take advantage of these opportunities during the litigation process, you’ll have to file a motion with the court.

Motion Basics

A motion is a written request or proposal to the court to obtain an asked-for order, ruling, or direction. There are a variety of motions, and it has become standard practice to file certain kinds of motions with the court based on the type of case. For example, in the state of California, the defendant in a defamation lawsuit will usually file an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss. If the court accepts the motion (which has lower standards for the defendant), the plaintiff will not be allowed to proceed with his or her case.

Motions are strategically important to litigation, and it is especially important to keep track of what motions are available to you -- the court will not file a motion for you if you fail to do so. 

Courts usually have specific requirements for filing a motion, so either consult your attorney or look up the local court rules to understand what you will need as you move forward. In Hawaii, for example, the Rules of Civil Procedure list the following motion requirements: a citation to a rule or statute that authorizes the motion, a memorandum in support of the motion, the attachment of all necessary affidavits and exhibits, a specific request for relief, certification of service, and various declarations.

Hearing vs. Non-Hearing Motions

A motion either requires a hearing or does not require a hearing, and the decision to hold a hearing on certain motions may be made by the judge on a case-by-case basis. You may request a hearing on your motion. 

For a non-hearing motion, the court will make a decision based only on written submissions to the court (memoranda or brief, in legalese) and any supporting affidavits, documents, and/or other evidence that were submitted up to that point in time. For a hearing motion, in addition to making written submissions to the court and submitting support affidavits, documents, and/or other evidence, the attorneys must appear before the court and argue the motion. After both hearing and non-hearing motions, the court will make a ruling and issue its order, sometimes in writing (and sometimes explaining the reasoning for its decision).

Motion for Summary Judgment

Motions are quite diverse, but the most prevalent one is a motion for summary judgment. If you bring a motion for summary judgment, you are asking the court to make a final ruling on the case before a trial has been conducted. This could be of great benefit, depending on the case, since you save time, money, and energy from having to further litigate your case. However, motion for summary judgments are not always available to litigating parties. For a motion for summary judgment to be granted, there must be no genuine issue of material fact – the reason this is important is because the judge/jury is expected to make decisions about the facts of the case at trial, so in order to skip the trial process, there cannot be leftover issues that should have gone to trial. If there is even one genuine issue of material fact, the court must deny the motion for summary judgment and move the case forward to trial.

To better understand what counts as a ‘genuine issue of material fact’, consider the following example: in a motor vehicle accident case, it may be relevant whether an intersection traffic light was red or green.  Whether the light was red or green would be a question of fact. One witness may say that the light was red, and another witness may say that it was green. The determination of who to believe is made by a fact-finder (judge/jury) at trial. A motion for summary judgment must therefore be denied so that this fact can be determined at trial. Alternatively, if both sides agree that the traffic light was the same color, then this fact is no longer in dispute, and is therefore not a genuine issue of material fact.

If there is no genuine issue of material fact, the court can rule on a motion for summary judgment because courts are empowered to interpret questions of pure law. Therefore, if a case involves only legal issues and no fact issues, a trial becomes unnecessary. An entire case can be decided on a motion for summary judgment if the motion encompasses all of the issues of that particular case.

Motions may be used in numerous ways to aid your case. They can be used to obtain information, to dismiss cases, or to trim cases down. They can be simple, such as a basic request to extend a deadline, or highly technical (requiring the attorneys to submit complex memoranda). In nearly every lawsuit, motions can be useful tools for furthering your case, and should be considered at every stage of litigation.

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