Supreme Court limits relief from final judgments after appellate deadlines pass
Maryland appellate practitioners have few options when clients need post-judgment relief but can no longer access an appellate court. But federal and state procedural rules still provide various, limited bases—and often more generous deadlines—for seeking relief from a court’s final judgment or order after the deadline for noticing an appeal has passed. Such rules are crucial—but different—in state and federal practice when, for whatever reasons, a litigant has not filed a timely notice of appeal. The Supreme Court recently addressed the issue in Kemp v. United States, construing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Kemp v. United States, No. 21-5726 (June 13, 2022).
Federal Rule 60(b) and the Kemp decision
Section (b) of Rule 60 covers every other reason for altering a final judgment or order, besides clerical mistakes, oversights, and omissions, which section (a) addresses. Rule 60(b)(1) allows a litigant to move to alter a final judgment “within a reasonable time”—but only within one year—after entry of judgment because of “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(c)(1). Following five subsections that list various reasons for relief from a final judgment, Rule 60(b)(6) allows trial courts to re-open judgments for “any other reason that justifies relief” if the litigant moves “within a reasonable time.” Subsection (1), thus, gives litigants up to a full year, if reasonable, to seek amendment of a final judgment while subsection (6) allows such motions at any “reasonable time.” (Section (a) imposes no time limit.)
The controlling subsection of Rule 60(b) was crucial to the legal fate of Mr. Kemp, who was convicted of various federal crimes in 2011 and whose procedural odyssey captured the Supreme Court’s attention. He and seven codefendants appealed their convictions and sentences, but the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Mr. Kemp did not appeal further, but two of his codefendants did, ultimately without success.
More than a year after his appeal ended—but within a year of the final judgment ending his codefendants’ appeal—Mr. Kemp moved the Florida federal trial court to vacate his sentence under Section 2255. The trial court erroneously found Mr. Kemp’s Section 2255 motion, which had to be filed within one year of the judgment of conviction becoming final, was untimely. Almost two years later, Mr. Kemp moved the same court to re-open his proceedings under Rule 60(b). The timeliness of the Rule 60(b) motion turned on whether the trial court’s erroneous dismissal of the Section 2255 motion (because finality ran from the co-defendants’ final judgment on appeal not Mr. Kemp’s) was a “mistake” under subsection (b)(1) or an “other reason that justifies relief” under subsection (b)(6).
The near-unanimous Supreme Court held that “a judge’s errors of law are indeed ‘mistake[s]’ under Rule 60(b)(1).” It affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s holding that Mr. Kemp’s Rule 60 motion was untimely because it was controlled by subsection (1), which covers “mistake,” and not subsection (6)’s “any other reason that justifies relief.” Although the Court described subsection (6) as a “catchall,” it explained that it applies only when subsections (1) through (5) provide no basis for relief. Even then, only “extraordinary circumstances” merit reopening a final judgment. Mr. Kemp had tried to parse “mistake” to apply only to factual errors by someone other than the judge and not obvious legal errors, such as misreading Section 2255’s triggering date for the running of limitations. The Court held that “mistake” included any legal error by the judge and was not limited to “obvious” ones, as even the prevailing Government had argued.
Post-judgment relief in Maryland
Maryland has similar rules on post-judgment relief but with some crucial distinctions. First, in ordinary post-trial appellate practice, Maryland Rules 2-532 and 2-533 require parties to file any motions for JNOV or a new trial within ten days after entry of judgment. After bench trials, Rule 2-534 sets the same 10-day deadline for motions to alter or amend the judgment. (Mercifully, the federal rules committee recognized the 10-day deadline’s deleterious impact on the quality of post-trial briefing and revised Federal Rules 52 and 59 to allow 28 days for such motions.)
Second, Rule 2-535 provides various procedural options under the trial court’s “Revisory power” to change its judgment even after the 10-day deadline for JNOV and new trial motions has passed and—in some instances—even after the 30-day deadline to notice an appeal has passed. For jury trials, the parties have 30 days after entry of judgment to seek any judgment-altering relief that would be available under Rule 2-534. Md. R. 2-535(a). The parties also have 30 days to seek “a new trial on the ground of newly-discovered evidence that could not have been discovered by due diligence in time to move for a new trial” under Rule 2-533. Md. R. 2-535(c) (emphasis added).
When more than 30 days have passed since the entry of judgment, Rule 2-535 limits Maryland litigants to even fewer options to seek judgment-altering relief from the trial court. These can be the motions of last resort if no appeal was timely filed. Unlike parties in federal court, state-court parties may move “at any time” for the trial court to “exercise revisory power and control over the judgment in case of fraud, mistake, or irregularity.” Md. R. 2-535(b) (emphasis added). Recall that Mr. Kemp had only a year, and only if reasonably timed, to move on the grounds of “mistake” under Federal Rule 60(b)(1). His Rule 60(b) motion would not have been per se untimely in Maryland state court under Rule 2-535(b). Similarly, a Maryland trial court may sua sponte or on motion of any party correct “clerical mistakes in judgments, orders, or other parts of the record.” Md. R. 2-535(d) (emphasis added). As in federal court, if an appeal has been docketed, clerical mistakes can be corrected only “with leave of the appellate court.” Id.
Of course, the best avenue for post-judgment relief is a timely appeal if timely post-trial motions have been denied. If that window has closed, procedural options are limited. But not all is necessarily lost.