Seventh Circuit Finds Factual Disputes not Material Affirms Summary Judgment in First Amendment Suit

In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit clarified the proper standard for deciding a motion for summary judgment. Many litigants and lawyers alike believe that the existence of a factual dispute is sufficient to stave off summary judgment and proceed to trial. However, the Seventh Circuit took the opportunity to reaffirm once again that the existence of factual disputes alone will not preclude summary judgment. Instead, the facts in dispute must be material in nature to prevent entry of summary, often referred to by courts as “genuine issues of material fact.” While acknowledging the existence of factual disputes aplenty in the First Amendment suit, the Seventh Circuit nonetheless ruled that the District Court properly entered summary judgment for the defendants because the plaintiff failed to identify any genuine issues of material fact in the case.

The plaintiff company lost its business licenses to operate two restaurants in the small Chicago suburb of Worth after supporting a political candidate running against the incumbent Village President, Mary Werner. After losing its business licenses, the company, FKFJ, Inc., filed suit against the Village of Worth and Werner under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the Village and Werner violated its First Amendment rights by retaliating against the company for supporting Werner’s opponent in the election. The case proceeded through discovery and the defendants then filed for summary judgment. FKFJ opposed summary judgment arguing that there were numerous factual disputes in the case. Despite FKFJ’s contention, the District Court granted summary judgment for the Village and Werner.

FKFJ appealed the entry of summary judgment arguing that the District Court erred by ignoring genuine disputes of material fact and making improper credibility determinations at the summary judgment stage. In support of its appeal, FKFJ pointed to a number of factual disputes that it claimed precluded the entry of summary judgment in the case. FKFJ argued that the issue of whether Werner possessed ill-will toward the plaintiff and its owners was a factual dispute sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.

While the Court in its opinion acknowledged that its “review of the record reveals various factual disputes” including a dispute concerning Werner’s supposed animus towards FKFJ, the Court found that these disputes were not material to determination of motion for summary judgment. “The problem,” the Court explained, “is not FKFJ’s failure to adduce evidence of Werner’s animus; it is the failure to provide any link between FKFJ’s support of [Werner’s political opponent] and any adverse action taken by Werner.”

To sustain its First Amendment claim, the Court explained that FKFJ was required to produce evidence that (1) it engaged in a protected First Amendment activity; (2) it “suffered a deprivation that would likely deter First Amendment activity in the future”; and (3) that the First Amendment activity was “at least a motivating factor” in the Village and Werner’s decision to take the retaliatory action complained of.

The Court found that FKFJ did produce evidence that would support a finding that Werner harbored animus toward the company. Nonetheless, the Court found that FKFJ’s claim failed, not due to a dispute concerning the existence or absence of animus, but on FKFJ’s failure to show Werner’s animus was based on the protected activity and that Werner acted in retaliation based on that animus. Thus, even assuming Werner had ill-will toward FKFJ, FKFJ still failed to establish a claim for a violation of its First Amendment rights. Because the factual dispute did not affect the outcome of the dispute, it was not a “genuine issue of material fact” the Court concluded.

The Court found similar deficiencies in FKFJ’s arguments concerning the supposed factual disputes present in its other claims. In its conclusion, the Court acknowledged that the case “is a tapestry of colorful factual threads, sheer complexity is not enough to stave off summary judgment.”

The takeaway from this case is that summary judgment rises and falls on the existence of disputes of material facts. Simply identifying factual disputes alone is not enough. Seasoned litigation attorneys must parse through the numerous factual disputes that exist in almost any commercial litigation case to identify those disputes concerning material facts. Then an attorney opposing summary judgment will seek to highlight those factual disputes that are outcome determinative.

The Court’s full opinion is available here.

Watch a video where we discuss a First Amendment case that we successfully brought under Section 1983 on behalf of one of our clients.

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