Lawyers and judges often refer to “dispositive” motions. Scheduling orders, which are issued in every civil case, almost always set a deadline for any dispositive motions to be filed. But what exactly is a dispositive motion? A dispositive motion is meant to dispose of the case. In other words, it asks the court for a ruling that addresses the legal issues and terminates the case in advance of the trial.
There are two kinds of dispositive motions. The first kind of dispositive motion is known as a motion to dismiss. These motions are usually filed early in the case and are a way of testing the sufficiently of the pleadings. They are not meant to investigate the facts of the case—just the allegations. Basically, a motion to dismiss asks a question: If you accept as true everything the other party says, has he alleged enough to state a valid claim under our state’s law? If the answer is yes, the judge will deny the motion and the case will proceed. If the answer is no, the judge will enter an order explaining his reasoning and dismissing the case.
The second kind of dispositive motion is known as a summary judgment motion. Unlike a motion to dismiss, a summary judgment motion is specifically designed to investigate the facts. Importantly, however, the summary judgment process is not a substitute for jury trials. Juries are a vital part of our system of justice, and the right to a jury trial is protected by the Seventh Amendment. The point of a summary judgment motion is to see if there are disputed issues of fact that require a jury in the first place. If A says the light was green, and B says the light was red, the judge will deny summary judgment and let the jury decide the issue. Even if A has given contradictory statements, or is a friend of one of the parties, or has a prior conviction for false swearing, these are all issues of credibility that a judge cannot decide. Instead, the judge will deny summary judgment and let the case go to the jury—which will then hear all the evidence for itself, weigh it, and reach its own verdict.