Party Could Not Appeal Directly From District to Appellate Court

The Court of Civil Appeals could not directly review a district court’s denial of a Rule 60(b) motion. Food World v. Carey, No. 2060329 (Ala. Civ. App. Aug. 24, 2007). The case did not meet the restricted criteria under which such direct review is allowed. The case was transferred to the circuit court for de novo review.

The district court entered a default judgment for the plaintiff. The defendant did not file a post-judgment motion; and it did not appeal the judgment within the fourteen days specified by Ala. Code § 12-12-70(a). Instead, forty-eight days after the judgment was entered, the defendant moved the district court for relief under Rules 60(b)(1) and (4). The district court denied that motion, and the defendants sought review in the Court of Civil Appeals.

The appellate court held that the defendant could not bypass the circuit court and appeal directly to the Court of Civil Appeals. The latter court first noted: “The denial of a Rule 60(b) motion seeking relief from a final judgment is, under Alabama law, itself a final judgment that will independently support an appeal.” (This cleared aside any issue regarding the lateness of the appeal, as measured from the entry of the default judgment.) The issue before the Court of Civil Appeals was which forum was correct. Should the defendant have appealed to the circuit court, or could it directly seek an appellate tribunal?

Generally, the Court of Civil Appeals explained, when a district court denies a Rule 60(b) motion, appeal should be made first to the circuit court. There are two exceptions to this rule. Section 12-12-72 of the Alabama Code permits direct appeals from a district to an appellate court when:

(1) An adequate record or stipulation of facts is available and the right to a jury trial is waived by all parties entitled thereto; or

(2) The parties stipulate that only questions of law are involved and the district court certifies the questions.

The parties in Carey tried to bring their case within the second exception. They identified various “questions of law,” and had the district court certify that these were the only issues involved.

The Court of Civil Appeals rejected this effort. It rejected, specifically, the characterization of the issues as “only questions of law.” Disposition of a Rule 60(b)(1) motion, the court reminded readers, “is a matter within the trial court’s discretion” and “would necessarily involve assessing . . . the facts of the particular case . . .” (Emphasis in original.) The court invoked federal descriptions of what constitutes a “question of law,” and reasoned that the case before it was unlike other Alabama cases in which the state’s courts had permitted appeals directly from district to appellate courts under § 12-12-72(2).

The Court of Civil Appeals thus lacked jurisdiction. It “transferred” the case to the circuit court for a “de novo” consideration of whether the district court had rightly denied the Rule 60(b) motion.