By John DiMotto
Most people are of the belief that in America, if you are in a civil dispute with someone that you cannot resolve that you can pay a modest jury fee and will have your case decided by your peers - a jury. "It ain't necessarily so," much to the chagrin of many pro se litigants.
This scenario plays out quite frequently in small claims cases.
In Milwaukee County, small claims actions (cases where the amount in controversy is $5,000 or less) are heard by judicial court commissioners. The commissioner hears from both sides and renders a decision. If either side does not like the decision, he/she can request a trial denovo from a judge or he/she can pay a jury fee and have the case transferred to a judge for a jury trial. If there is a dispute of fact, a jury trial will go forward. However, oftentimes the decision of the judicial court commissioner is based on a matter of law, not fact, and in these cases the requested, paid for jury, may not come to pass. One party files a motion for summary judgment to short circuit the need for a jury trial.
A party is entitled to summary judgment if there is no genuine issue of material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
We see summary judgment motions with great frequency in cases involving insurance coverage. If a policy does not provide coverage for a fact scenario, an insurance company can "get out of a case" via summary judgment. Whether coverage is or is not available is usually a question of law not fact and is determined by the court not a jury.
The bottom line is this: If there is a dispute of fact you can have a jury trial. If there is a question of law, the decision is made by the court. A jury decides facts, a judge decides the law.