South Carolina Supreme Court Clarifies the Applicable Standard for Summary Judgment
Today, the South Carolina Supreme Court clarified the well-established standard for motions for summary judgment. In The Kitchen Planners, LLC v. Samuel E. Friedman, Op. no. 28173 (Aug. 23, 2023), the Court took the opportunity to clarify the proper standard of decision for a motion for summary judgment when the motion is based on insufficiency of the evidence. The underlying case dealt with a mechanic’s lien. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment contending the plaintiff failed to perfect its lien. The trial court agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment.
In the section of its opinion entitled “Standard of Review,” the Court of Appeals stated, “[I]n cases applying the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof, the non-moving party is only required to submit a mere scintilla of evidence in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” 432 S.C. at 275, 851 S.E.2d at 729.” The Court then found that there was evidence submitted that constituted a mere scintilla. Even with such finding, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
However, in its opinion, the Supreme Court clarified the Rule 56(c), SCRCP standard. It stated, “In most cases applying Rule 56(c), this Court and our court of appeals have applied the ‘genuine issue of material fact’ standard set forth in the Rule, requiring the party opposing the motion show a ‘reasonable inference’ to be drawn from the evidence, and we have rejected the ‘mere scintilla’ standard[,]” citing Baughman v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 306 S.C. 101, 115, 410 S.E.2d 537, 545 (holding a party opposing summary judgment “must …’do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts’ but ‘must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’”) and Shelton v. LS & K, Inc., 374 S.C. 294, 297, 648 S.E.2d 307, 308 (Ct. App. 2007) (“The existence of a mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party’s position is not sufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment.”). In short, the Court emphasized the standard as being “genuine issue of material fact” as opposed to “mere scintilla.”
Confusion regarding the standard may have set-in following the opinion of Hancock v. Mid-S. Mgmt. Co., 381 S.C. 326, 330, 673 S.E.2d 801, 803 (2009)), where the Supreme Court made the statement—which was ultimately quoted by the Court of Appeals in this case—“that in cases applying the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof, the non-moving party is only required to submit a mere scintilla of evidence in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” The Supreme Court recognized that in the minds of many, these two standards (“mere scintilla” and “genuine issue of material fact”) are inconsistent.
Accordingly, today the Supreme Court rejected the “mere scintilla” standard, going so far as to say: “To the extent what we said in Hancock is inconsistent with our decision today, Hancock is overruled.” (emphasis added). Therefore, “it is not sufficient for a party to create an inference that is not reasonable or an issue of fact that is not genuine.”