Friends of Thayer Lake v Brown, ___ NY3d ___, 2016 NY Slip Op 03647 
We looked at this case last year, when the Appellate Division allowed the parties to chart their own procedural course to summary judgment. The Court of Appeals has now held that summary judgment is simply not available where the proof reveals factual issues, whether or not the parties ask for it.
The issue was whether a certain waterway in Hamilton County is navigable-in-fact, a determination which bears significantly on the property rights of the adjacent landowners. The parties moved and cross-moved for summary judgment, and the proof was such that the trial court stated its inclination to view the ultimate determination as one of fact, to deny the motions and leave the matter for trial. The parties, both before the trial court and in the Appellate Division, noted that despite an extensive record the essential facts were not in dispute and asked the court to issue a determination as a matter of law.
Noting the general principle that the parties may chart their own procedural course, the Appellate Division held that under the circumstances it was appropriate to accede to the parties’ request and determine the dispute as a matter of law.
The Court of Appeals has now “modi-versed,” that is, it has denied the motion that the Appellate Division granted, couching the determination in terms of a modification rather than an outright reversal. In so doing, it made two larger points.
First, the parties’ ability to “chart their own procedural course” has limits. Where, as here, the course they attempt to follow runs directly contrary to established procedures, they may not necessarily ask the court to come with them.
The second, related, point, is that a party moving for summary judgment must always show its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, and that there are no material issues of fact. Where factual issues exist, summary judgment is simply the wrong vehicle, and must be denied.
Here, the parties’ submissions clearly raised conflicting factual claims in a case which is highly fact-specific. This, despite their claim that the facts were not in dispute. While a stipulated statement of facts is not required, the conflicting evidence means that neither party has shown its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, and the dueling summary judgment motions should all have been denied. One may ask why, if the facts were not in dispute, the parties could not arrive at a stipulated set of facts.
To the extent that the parties could not agree on stipulated facts, and did not want to go to the expense of a long trial, an alternative resolution does present itself: The parties could stipulate to the admissibility of all of the conflicting evidence, and stipulate that it would constitute the trial record. The court could then entertain arguments as to the weight and effect of the evidence, and resolve factual issues accordingly. The problem with this approach, of course, is that the plaintiff still has to sustain that pesky burden of proof, and a tie still goes to the defendant. If the conflicting evidence is not resolved in plaintiff’s favor, the verdict must be against it, and to the extent that this is a declaratory judgment action, the declaration must be in defendant’s favor.