Hooten v. Safe Auto Ins. Co.

Decision Date24 September 2003
Docket NumberNo. 2002-1349.,2002-1349.
Citation100 Ohio St.3d 8,795 NE 2d 648
PartiesHOOTEN, APPELLEE, v. SAFE AUTO INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLANT.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder Co., L.P.A., Edward M. Ryder, David K. Frank and Rudy A. Bisciotti, for appellant.

ALICE ROBIE RESNICK, J.

{¶ 1} This case addresses whether local rules of court can adequately provide parties with notice of the deadline for filing a response to a motion for summary judgment or of the date the trial court will consider such motion.

I Facts and Procedural History

{¶ 2} On May 21, 1998, plaintiff-appellee, Henry L. Hooten, filed a complaint against defendant-appellant, Safe Auto Insurance Company ("Safe Auto"), in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. Hooten alleged that Safe Auto had improperly refused payment under an auto insurance policy between Hooten and Safe Auto for a 1997 accident. Safe Auto answered that the policy excluded coverage when a vehicle's operator was without a "valid driver's license or without driving privileges" at the time of an accident and that Hooten was operating his vehicle without a valid license or driving privileges when his accident occurred.

{¶ 3} Safe Auto's assertions related to a conviction that Hooten had received in 1996 for driving under the influence of alcohol, a resulting suspension of his driver's license, his subsequent receipt of occupational driving privileges conditioned on his use of an ignition-interlock device, and alleged irregularities within that series of events that Safe Auto claimed had caused the driver's license to be invalid at the time of the accident. Pursuant to Civ.R. 56, Safe Auto sought summary judgment, and the trial court granted its motion for summary judgment on August 16, 1999.

{¶ 4} Hooten appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals for Hamilton County, which, on May 19, 2000, reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the matter for further proceedings, finding that an issue of fact existed as to whether Hooten had had a valid driver's license when he was involved in the accident.

{¶ 5} On remand, the case was assigned to a different trial judge, and shortly thereafter, to a third judge. On December 28, 2000, Hooten filed a motion for summary judgment, to which Safe Auto responded on January 16, 2001. At a hearing on April 4, 2001, which primarily involved the parties' discovery disputes, the trial court denied Hooten's motion for summary judgment. The trial court expressed dissatisfaction with the progress of the case and denied Hooten's request for a continuance. On April 26, 2001, Safe Auto took Hooten's deposition for the first time in the litigation, earlier attempts having been unsuccessful. On May 3, 2001, Safe Auto moved for leave to file a new motion for summary judgment. Hooten filed no opposition to the motion for leave, and on June 4, 2001, the trial court granted leave to Safe Auto to file its motion.

{¶ 6} Safe Auto filed its motion for summary judgment on July 9, 2001. Within this motion, Safe Auto contended that because Hooten's driver's license had been suspended at the time of the accident and no reinstatement fee had been paid, Hooten did not hold a valid driver's license in 1997. Consequently, Safe Auto asserted, it had justifiably denied Hooten's claim.

{¶ 7} On July 20, 2001, Hooten moved, pursuant to Civ.R. 56(F), to continue the trial court's hearing of the summary judgment motion pending further discovery. Hooten did not request an oral hearing on the summary judgment motion and gave no indication of an intention to file any response to Safe Auto's motion. On August 9, 2001, the trial court granted Safe Auto's motion for summary judgment and denied Hooten's motion for a Civ.R. 56(F) continuance.

{¶ 8} Hooten appealed the grant of summary judgment against him to the First District Court of Appeals, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court had erred by never setting a date for a hearing on or submission of Safe Auto's motion for summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for further proceedings, finding that the trial court had erred by not setting a hearing date. In the decision, considered on an accelerated calendar and with little analysis, the court of appeals cited several of its previous decisions as support for its position. Because the court of appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment as procedurally flawed, the court did not consider Hooten's substantive argument on the merits.

{¶ 9} This case comes to us by way of a certified conflict between the judgment of the First District Court of Appeals and a decision of the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Hall v. Klien (Sept. 3, 1999), Wood App. No. WD-99-001, 1999 WL 682584, on the following issue: "Must a trial court, before ruling on a motion for summary judgment under Civ.R. 56, either set an oral or non-oral hearing date or establish a cut-off date for parties to submit affidavits or materials opposing the motion?"1 The cause is now before this court upon our finding that a conflict exists.

II Summary Judgment Procedural Considerations

{¶ 10} In supporting its view of the certified issue, Safe Auto argues that a trial court need not set a date for consideration of a summary judgment motion or establish deadlines for parties' briefs and Civ.R. 56 materials when a local court rule clearly does so. Loc.R. 14(B) of the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County provides that a memorandum in opposition to any motion, including one for summary judgment, "shall be served upon movant's trial attorney within ten days from the date the memorandum in support of the motion and proof of service thereof, was served. Failure to serve and file a memorandum contra may be cause for the Court to grant the motion as served and filed."

{¶ 11} The court of appeals acknowledged the existence of Loc.R. 14(B), but found that it does not dispense with the requirement that a trial court inform the parties of either a hearing date or a deadline for submitting materials. The court of appeals' decision in this regard generally conflicts with decisions of several other appellate districts.

{¶ 12} Before proceeding to the certified issue, we first consider case law relevant to Civ.R. 56 and summary judgment motion practice. Civ.R. 56(C) provides that a summary judgment motion "shall be served at least fourteen days before the time fixed for hearing. The adverse party, prior to the day of hearing, may serve and file opposing affidavits." Civ.R. 56(C) then lists the standards by which to determine the merits of the motion and also lists the materials that the trial court will consider in making its determination.

{¶ 13} Although Civ.R. 56(C) sets out the procedure by which summary judgments are issued, the rule's requirements are general. Case law and local rules of court have delineated additional procedures, which can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction. For example, the Hamilton County Court of Appeals requires that trial courts set hearing and submission dates, while many other appellate districts do not.

{¶ 14} On the other hand, there is consensus on many aspects of the procedural requirements of summary judgment. Ohio's appellate courts uniformly agree that a trial court is not required to schedule an oral hearing on every motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., Manor Care Nursing & Rehab. Ctr. v. Thomas (1997), 123 Ohio App.3d 481, 486, 704 N.E.2d 593, from the First District Court of Appeals, and Anania v. Daubenspeck Chiropractic (1998), 129 Ohio App.3d 516, 522, 718 N.E.2d 480, from the Second District Court of Appeals. The "hearing" contemplated by Civ.R. 56(C) may be either a formal, oral hearing (in which the trial court entertains oral arguments from counsel on a scheduled date preceded by the parties' filings of memoranda and Civ.R. 56 evidentiary materials) or a "nonoral," informal one. Brown v. Akron Beacon Journal Publishing Co. (1991), 81 Ohio App.3d 135, 139, 610 N.E.2d 507; Wise v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr. (1992), 84 Ohio App.3d 11, 15, 616 N.E.2d 251. Whether to grant a party's request for oral hearing is a decision within the trial court's discretion. Doe v. Beach House Dev. Co. (2000), 136 Ohio App.3d 573, 582, 737 N.E.2d 141; Potter v. Troy (1992), 78 Ohio App.3d 372, 378, 604 N.E.2d 828; Gates Mills Invest. Co. v. Pepper Pike (1978), 59 Ohio App.2d 155, 164, 13 O.O.3d 191, 392 N.E.2d 1316.

{¶ 15} Many of the above considerations regarding oral argument are incorporated into the Local Rules of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, which instruct that "motions in civil cases" will not "be set for oral argument" unless certain procedures are followed. Loc.R. 14(C)(1)(a) and (b). The local rules further allow the trial judge, upon receipt of a request for oral argument, to "make whatever disposition the judge feels is proper" or to "set the matter for oral argument." Loc.R. 14(C)(2). In addition, Loc.R. 14(C)(4) provides, "If no request for oral argument is made by any interested party within ten days after the filing of such motion, the motion shall be considered by the assigned judge for decision." These rules are typical of local rules addressing the scheduling of oral arguments and appear generally to be consistent with Civ.R. 7(B)(2): "To expedite its business, the court may make provision by rule or order for the submission and determination of motions without oral hearing upon brief written statements of reasons in support and opposition." See, also, Fed.R.Civ.P. 78, which contains identical wording.

{¶ 16} Federal courts take the same general view of the hearing requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. See Annotation, Necessity of Oral Argument on Motion for Summary Judgment (1991), 105 A.L.R.Fed. 755, 761, Section 3 (generally, oral argument is not a requirement for a summary judgment "hearing"). Ohio's Civ.R. 56 is based upon the federal rule, and so...

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