Finality of Judgments – Reasonable Time to File Rule 60(b)(5) Motion

Ex parte Huntingdon College, et al.; Rhodes College, et al. v. The Bellingrath-Morse Foundation Trust, etc., [Ms. SC-2023-0001, May 26, 2023] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2023). The Court (Sellers, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bryan and Mendheim, JJ., concur; Shaw and Stewart, JJ., concur in the result; Mitchell and Cook, JJ., recuse) issues a writ of mandamus to the Mobile Circuit Court vacating the circuit court order granting the trustees of the Bellingrath-Morse Trust relief from a final judgment entered in 2003. The Rule 60(b)(5) order removed a 20% cap on the subsidy for the support of Bellingrath Gardens that had been incorporated in a 2003 consent judgment and returned full discretion to the trustees to provide annual support for the Gardens. Ms. *7.

The Court first explains “[a] petition for a writ of mandamus is a proper method for attacking an order granting relief pursuant to Rule 60(b). Ex parte Wallace, Jordan, Ratliff & Brandt, L.L.C., 29 So. 3d 175 (Ala. 2009). Relief from a final judgment under Rule 60(b) is an extreme remedy to be used only when a party can demonstrate exceptional circumstances warranting such relief. Ex parte A & B Transp., Inc., 8 So. 3d 924, 932 (Ala. 2007). The decision to grant or deny a motion filed pursuant to Rule 60(b) is within the sound discretion of the trial court; our standard of review is limited to determining whether the trial court exceeded its discretion. Id.” Ms. **10-11.

“Rule 60(b)(5) permits a trial court to relieve a party from a final judgment ‘when new facts or new law arises after the original judgment is entered, rendering prospective application of the judgment inequitable.’ Satterfield v. Winston Indus., Inc., 553 So. 2d 61, 63 (Ala. 1989).” Ms. *13. However, “[i]t is well settled that a trial court ‘must approach all issues regarding the reopening of such long-settled judgments in the light of the strong arguments in favor of finality of a prior judgment.’ Ex parte State ex rel. J.Z., 668 So. 2d 566, 569 (Ala. 1995)…” Ms. *15.

Even though the trust conferred a right on the trustees to seek court instructions regarding the trust, this did “not supersede [the] trial court’s duty under Rule 60(b) of balancing the competing interests regarding finality of a judgment and fairness to all the parties. Therefore, the circuit court exceeded its discretion in finding that it had a clean slate ‘to interpret and enforce’ the 2003 judgment ....” Ms. *19. The Court holds “the interest in finality weighs heavily against finding that the trustees sought Rule 60(b)(5) relief within a ‘reasonable time.’” Ms. *20.

On the merits, the Court also notes that economic downturns (such as the 2008 recession) do not open the door for relitigation of every affected consent judgment, as such “would undermine the finality of such judgments and could serve as a disincentive to negotiate settlements.” Ms. *30.

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