This post is part of our ongoing series translating the lawyer-gibberish of Pennsylvania lawsuits into something understandable. For the definitions of the terms in bold check out the post that launched this series. A list of the posts in the series is also at the end of this article.

Lawsuits generally end in one of three ways:

  • The case can settle out of court. We’ve already talked about settling cases in the post Let’s Get It Started. This is the most likely way a case is resolved.
  • The case can be resolved by a judge or jury at a trial. But unlike what we see in movies and TV, this is the least likely outcome. We’ll talk more about trial for the next post.
  • A “dispositive motion,” i.e. a motion that resolves the case in someone’s favor without a trial. Think of it as a motion that can “dispose” of a case.

For today’s post, let’s take a deeper dive into these dispositive motions.

Who Files a Dispositive Motion?

A dispositive motion can be filed by any of the parties in the case. A defendant might file one to argue that a plaintiff does not have enough evidence to prove their claims. Or to eliminate one or more claims being raised. A plaintiff might file one if a defendant fails to respond (known as a default judgment). Or if a plaintiff thinks there is no way it can lose.

The decisions of when to file for a dispositive motion, and how to defend against them, are among the most strategic aspects of your case. Stay in close communication with your lawyer throughout your case to look for opportunities to use them. But because dispositive motions often require a fair amount of legal work, you also do not want to use them all the time or you will quickly run up significant expense.

When Do Dispositive Motions Happen?

Dispositive motions can happen at any point during a lawsuit. But confusingly, they have different names depending upon when it happens. The most common types are:

  • Motion for Default – When a party loses automatically because he, she, or it has not bothered to file any response to the claims against them
  • Preliminary Objections (PA state court)/Motion to Dismiss (federal court) – Usually used to argue that a plaintiff’s Complaint cannot succeed. The Court will assume, for the motion only, that the plaintiff can prove everything claimed.
  • Motion for Summary Judgment – Raised at the end of the discovery process, but before trial. These are used by both plaintiffs and defendants. Everyone must present evidence supporting their position. They cannot simply rely upon the claims they made in the pleadings.

The parties to a lawsuit are not forced to chose only one of these motions. You can file multiple motions during a case. And parties can also file “cross” motions, where in response the other side makes is own motion.

What Happens When One is Filed?

The exact procedure for a dispositive motion varies from county-to-county. And between federal and state courts. But in general:

  • The “moving party” (the one filing the motion) files its request, any exhibits or evidence, and a brief supporting its position.
  • Then the other party or parties (called “responding” parties) file their brief opposing the motion and submitting any exhibits or evidence of their own.
  • The moving party may (depending on the type of motion and the court) have a chance to file another brief known as a “reply” brief

Once the filings are made, it is up to the Court to make its decision. (And no, there is nothing the lawyers or parties can do to make this process go faster!)

When the judge has decided, you will receive an order granting or denying the motion(s). Sometimes, the judge may explain the order with a written opinion. If a motion is granted than some or all of the claims in the case may be over. But if the motion is denied or if it did not resolve all of the claims, then the case continues…

Check out the rest of our series “Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language”:

Brandon Harter is litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School and advises clients on issues of Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and chairs the firm’s Tech Law Group.