United States Supreme Court Clarifies Boundaries of Federal Civil Rule 60(b)

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Getting a trial court to rethink its prior decision is a steep climb. The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Kemp v. United States, issued June 13, 2022, makes achieving such outcomes easier in one sense, but more difficult in another.

In Kemp, the defendant filed a motion for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6)’s catchall provision “any other reason that justifies relief.” The defendant’s substantive argument to the trial court was that it made a legal error.

First, the additional procedural difficulty: The trial court denied the defendant’s motion as untimely. The court determined that a challenge based on a purported legal error should be brought under Rule 60(b)(1)’s “mistake” provision, not Rule 60(b)(6). The court’s conclusion as to which is the operative subrule is crucial because all Rule 60(b) motions, including challenges raised under Rule 60(b)(1) and (6), must be brought “within a reasonable time”; but Rule 60(b)(1) motions are subject to the additional requirement that they must be filed within one year of the judgment from which the party is seeking relief. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion as untimely. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts’ conclusions that Rule 60(b)(1) is the operative subrule—holding that a court’s “legal error” falls within the category of a “mistake.” Thus, the Supreme Court set up an extra hurdle to getting a trial court to admit it made a legal error because the high court held that any party seeking such a ruling has a hard-stop deadline of one year to file its challenge.

Second, the lower substantive bar: Despite finding that a legal error qualifies as a mistake, the Supreme Court rejected the Government’s interpretation of Rule 60(b)(1)’s “mistake” provision as applying only to “obvious” legal errors. The Court explained that an “obviousness” requirement is contrary to the plain language of the rule and too difficult to administer. In rejecting the Government’s interpretation, the Supreme Court overruled the precedent in circuits that had adopted an “obvious legal error” standard. Thus, a party may now ground a Rule 60(b)(1) motion in any legal error, not only obvious legal errors.

Both the arguments raised and the timing of raising the arguments affect a litigant’s opportunity to overcome an adverse judgment. It is therefore essential that a party suffering an adverse judgment promptly seek assistance from counsel who has experience litigating cases with a post-judgment procedural posture.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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