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CIVIL PROCEDURE / DISMISSAL - SYNOVUS BANK V. MITCHELL

Synovus Bank v. Mitchell, [Ms. 1141046, Apr. 29, 2016] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2016). Synovus Bank appeals from a Jefferson County Circuit Court order denying its motion to set aside a joint stipulation of dismissal with prejudice. The Supreme Court reverses the judgment and remands the cause for further proceedings. At issue was whether a joint stipulation of dismissal allegedly agreed to by the bank based upon representations that the debtor had no assets, could be set aside pursuant to Rule 60(b), Ala. R. Civ. P. When it was later learned that the debtor was the beneficiary of life insurance proceeds, the bank contended the dismissal was ineffectual and that the dismissal could be challenged pursuant to Rule 60(b). The debtor contended the joint stipulation of dismissal deprived the circuit court of jurisdiction to subsequently entertain the Rule 60(b) motion. Synovus countered that the joint stipulation had not complied with Rule 41(a)(1)(ii), Ala. R. Civ. P. and therefore had not operated to dismiss the action such that its motion to set aside the stipulation of dismissal pursuant to Rule 60(b) was properly before the circuit court and could be considered on its merits.

Because the debtor had not filed a responsive pleading prior to entry of the joint stipulation, the Supreme Court held that the stipulation of dismissal was effective pursuant to Rule 41(a)(1)(i) rather than (ii). Rule 41(a)(1)(i), Ala. R. Civ. P. provides, in pertinent part:

Subject to the provisions of Rule 23(e), of Rule 66, and of any statute of this state, an action may be dismissed by the plaintiff without order of court (i) by filing a notice of dismissal at any time before service by the adverse party of an answer or of a motion for summary judgment, whichever first occurs or (ii) by filing a stipulation of dismissal signed by all parties who have appeared in the action. Unless otherwise stated in the notice of dismissal or stipulation, the dismissal is without prejudice. ...

(Emphasis added.) Thus, a plaintiff may effectuate a dismissal at any time before service by the adverse party of an answer or of a motion for summary judgment regardless of whether the adverse party joins in a stipulation of dismissal, and plaintiff’s Rule 41(a)(1)(i) notice of dismissal, once filed with the court, automatically dismisses the action; no subsequent order of the court is required. Ms. at *6.

Despite Synovus’s voluntary dismissal having the effect of depriving the circuit court of the power to proceed further, the Supreme Court held the circuit court retained limited authority to entertain its Rule 60(b) motion to set aside the dismissal. Citing the Committee Comments to Rule 41, the Supreme Court noted “a dismissal, whether voluntary or involuntary, may be set aside by the court, like any other judgment, on proper motion under Rule 60(b).” The Court found persuasive numerous federal decisions holding that Rule 60(b) motions could properly be used to set aside voluntary dismissals.

Related Documents: Synovus v Mitchell 4-29-16

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