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Discovery and Explanation Required Before Converting Motion into Motion for Summary Judgment

By Brandon Sample

Before converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment, district courts must first give pro se parties (i) the opportunity to take relevant discovery, and (ii) an explanation of the consequences of a grant of summary judgment, as well as what can be done to defeat the motion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided September 21, 2009.

Joe Hernandez brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after he was allegedly attacked and seriously injured by guards during a transfer to the Kings County Family Court for a court appearance.

In 2003, the district court dismissed Hernandez’s suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. In 2005, the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the matter for a determination of whether (1) Hernandez had “available” remedies; (2) the defendants should be estopped from asserting exhaustion as a defense; and (3) Hernandez was justified in failing to exhaust.

On remand, the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants after converting a previously filed motion for judgment on the pleadings into a motion for summary judgment. Before converting the motion, though, the district court did not permit Hernandez to take any discovery, nor did it explain the consequences of treating the defendants’ motion as one for summary judgment, or how Hernandez could defend against it. Hernandez appealed.

On appeal, Hernandez argued that the district court erred in converting the defendants’ motion into a motion for summary judgment without prior notice or the opportunity to take discovery. The Second Circuit agreed.

Formal notice that a court intends to convert a motion for judgment on the pleadings or to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment is not ordinarily required where the parties are on notice of possible conversion, the court explained. However, when dealing with pro se parties, “notice is particularly important because the pro se litigant may be unaware of the consequences of his failure to offer evidence bearing on triable issues.”

Such was the case with Hernandez. There was “nothing in the record to suggest Hernandez independently understood the summary judgment process” or the “nature or consequences of summary judgment,” the court wrote. That, combined with the district court’s refusal to allow Hernandez to take any discovery, rendered the district court’s conversion of the defendants’ motion without notice error.

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was again vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. See: Hernandez v. Coffey, 582 F.3d 303, 74 Fed.R.Serv.3d 910 (2nd Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Hernandez v. Coffey