“No Bright Line” Determines When Mandamus Will Be Treated As Appeal; Late “Enlargement” of Judgment Was Not “Correction” Under Rule 60(a)

The Court of Civil Appeals treated a petition for mandamus as an appeal from the denial of a Rule 60(b)(4) motion for relief from a void order. Weaver v. Weaver, No. 2070778 (Ala. Civ. App. Sept. 26, 2008). Moreover, the trial court’s late attempt to substantively revise its earlier judgment was not a clerical “correction” under Rule 60(a) that could be made after the time for ruling on post-judgment motions had expired.

The husband moved under Rule 59(e) to alter, amend or vacate a divorce judgment. Ninety days later, under Rule 59.1, this motion was denied by operation of law . Ten days after this denial, the trial court entered an order purporting to rule on the husband’s 59(e) motion. The wife moved to “strike” this order. The trial court refused, and the wife petitioned the Court of Civil Appeals for a writ of mandamus.

The appellate court first decided to treat the mandamus petition as an appeal. The wife’s motion, the court reasoned, was essentially one under Rule 60(b)(4), because it claimed that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the challenged order. The denial of a 60(b)(4) motion is reviewable by appeal. The appellate court invoked its power to treat the mandamus petition as an appeal. Quoting the Supreme Court of Alabama, the Court of Civil Appeals explained: “[T]here is no bright-line test for determining when this Court will treat a particular filing as a mandamus petition and when it will treat it as a notice of appeal.” The court “elected” to treat the wife’s filing as an appeal.

Then, on the merits, the appellate court held that the trial court had indeed lacked jurisdiction to enter its late order. Because the trial court did not rule upon the husband’s post-judgment motion within 90 days of its filing, the motion was denied by operation of law under Rule 59.1, and the trial court “lost jurisdiction” to rule upon the motion.

The husband attempted to save the late order by arguing that it merely “corrected” the divorce judgment under Rule 60(a). (Such corrections may be made “at any time,” so that the trial court’s order would not be void because late.) The Court of Civil Appeals rejected this contention. Rule 60(a) orders are meant to correct “errors of a ministerial nature in order to reflect what was actually intended at the time of the entry of the order.” Rule 60(a) orders “cannot be used to enlarge or modify a judgment” or to make it “say something other than what was originally said.” The trial court’s late order here attempted just that. It sought to modify substantive terms of the divorce judgment — although these terms been addressed and decided in that “final” judgment. (The terms in question related to the division of equity in the parties’ marital home.)

Consequently, the trial court’s late order was not entered pursuant to Rule 60(a).  It was an attempt to change that judgment in response to the husband’s post-judgment motion to alter, amend, or vacate. Because the trial court had already “lost jurisdiction” to rule on that motion, the challenged order was void. The wife should have been granted relief from that order under Rule 60(b)(4). The case was reversed and remanded.