Summary adjudication is a pre-trial procedural device that allows a court to determine the merits of a particular cause of action, an affirmative defense, a claim for damages, and/or an issue of duty. This procedural device can be brought by either party by a motion and is commonly used in California's civil procedure. The purpose of summary adjudication is to reduce the cost and length of litigation. As a result, statutes that govern motions for summary adjudication, such as California's, state that "[a] motion for summary judgment shall be granted only if it completely disposes of a cause of action, an affirmative defense, a claim for damages, or an issue of duty."
For the purposes of summary adjudication, completely disposing a cause of action means proving (or denying) each element of a cause of action. For example, in a cause of action for breach of contract, summary adjudication can not be granted for the cause of action while leaving the issue of damages to be determined at trial, because damages are an element to a cause of action based on breach of contract.
A party may challenge an order granting summary adjudication after trial, and in reviewing the order, an appellate court looks at the facts from the record that was presented to the trial court before the motion was granted. Moreover, a summary adjudication holding can be reconsidered by a trial court sua sponte if it believes that the holding was erroneous. However, if a court decides to do so, it must give all parties notice and a hearing for the parties to litigate the question.
While both are pre-trial devices, summary adjudication differs from summary judgment in that the latter disposes of the entire case, whereas summary adjudication resolves selected issues, leaving the remaining ones to be settled at trial.
[Last updated in October of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]