Circuit Court Lacked Jurisdiction to Rule On Late 60(b)(1) Motion

A father moved under Rule 60(b) to set aside a child support order that had been entered ten months earlier. Though he specified no specific part of Rule 60(b), his motion could be construed as coming only under Rule 60(b)(1). Such motions must be brought within four months of the challenged order. The circuit court’s ruling on the father’s late motion was jurisdictionally void and would not support an appeal. Noll v. Noll, No. 2080736 (Ala. Civ. App. Jan. 29, 2010).

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The circuit court ordered the father to pay post-minority educational support. Ten months later, the father moved under Rule 60(b) to set aside that order, arguing that his attorney had not notified him of the support hearing. The trial court granted that motion. Eventually, months later again, the trial court entered a final judgment, again ordering the father to contribute to his adult child’s education. The father appealed.

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The Court of Civil Appeals raised the issue of appellate jurisdiction on its own motion. The court first explained that the father’s motion to set aside, made generally under Rule 60(b), could be construed only as a motion for relief due to “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect” — in other words, a motion specifically under Rule 60(b)(1). But such motions must be filed within four months of entry of the order or judgment they challenge. Here, the father’s motion came ten months after the relevant order.

The appellate court then considered whether the father’s motion could have been treated as coming under Rule 60(b)(6). This is the catchall provision that permits an order to be unwound for “any other reason justifying relief.” “There is no strict time limitation for filing” a Rule 60(b)(6) motion; “it only has to be brought within a ‘reasonable time.’”

As a rule, the court explained, Alabama does not permit Rule 60(b)(6) to be used like this. Rule 60(b)(6) is meant to operate “exclusively” of the “specific grounds listed in” other parts of Rule 60(b). Thus, “a party may not escape the time limits of Rule 60(b)(1) merely by characterizing his motion as a Rule 60(b)(6) motion.”

There is a limited exception. In some cases,

in the interest of justice, aggravating circumstances may be considered sufficient to allow the trial court to treat what would otherwise be a Rule 60(b)(1) motion as within Rule 60(b)(6). Alabama courts have found that sufficient aggravating circumstances existed when an attorney had intentionally misled his client or when the attorney had suffered from psychological disorders or other personal problems.

(Quotation and citation omitted). Here, the father’s Rule 60(b) motion had alleged no such thing. His motion was therefore late.

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The trial court had no jurisdiction to rule on the late Rule 60(b) motion. Its order doing so was void. Void, too, was its ultimate judgment insofar as it rested on the null 60(b) order. In the circumstances of this case, undoing the Rule 60(b) order meant that other issues had been left unresolved. The trial court’s purported final judgment thus had not disposed of all matters before it, and was not “final” so as to support an appeal. The Court of Civil Appeals dismissed the appeal and remanded the case with instructions.