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SCOTUS Announces Judge’s Error of Law Constitutes ‘Mistake’ for Purposes of Reopening a Case Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1)

by Dale Chappell

In a ruling that will likely change how petitioners in federal habeas corpus cases challenge “mistakes” in their cases, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held that the term “mistake” in Rule 60(b)(1) includes judicial errors of law and that motions cognizable under that Rule are subject to a one-year limitations period provided for in Rule 60(c)(1).

When Dexter Kemp filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his federal sentence in April 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed it as untimely. Kemp didn’t appeal but, two years later, filed a motion under Rule 60(b)(6) to reopen his § 2255 motion. He claimed that his motion was indeed filed on time, so the district court erred in concluding otherwise. Kemp appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Kemp that his § 2255 motion “appear[ed] to have been timely,” but it concluded that his Rule 60(b) motion was untimely, explaining that his motion to reopen alleged “precisely the sort of judicial mistak[e] in applying the relevant law that Rule 60(b)(1) encompasses.” That is, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Rule 60(b)(1), which is subject to a one-year filing deadline, governs Kemp’s motion rather than Rule 60(b)(6), which isn’t subject to a one-year filing deadline—only that the motion must be filed “within a reasonable time.” Rule 60(c)(1).

Kemp then petitioned the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his appeal to resolve a longstanding disagreement among the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals as to whether “‘mistake’ in Rule 60(b)(1) includes a judge’s errors of law.”

Seeking Relief with a Rule 60(b) Motion

A party may seek relief from a final judgment in a civil proceeding, including in a federal habeas case, and request to reopen the case under limited circumstances pursuant to Rule 60(b). Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005). Kemp filed his motion to reopen under Rule 60(b)(6), which states: “On motion and on just terms, the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons ... (6) any other reason that justifies relief.”

This catch-all provision typically applies when the claim doesn’t qualify under Rule 60(b)(1)-(5), and even then, SCOTUS has said Rule 60(b)(6) is for only “extraordinary circumstances.” Liljeberg v. Health Services Acquisition Corp., 486 U.S. 847 (1988). Putting aside Kemp’s assertion that his motion falls under Rule (b)(6), the district court treated it as being filed under Rule 60(b)(1), which relieves a party of a final judgment in a civil case if there was “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.”

What Is a ‘Mistake’ Under Rule 60(b)?

SCOTUS looked to the ordinary dictionary definition of the word “mistake” when Rule 60(b)(1) was created in 1938. It found that a mistake applied to any “misconception, misunderstanding, or fault in opinion or judgment.” Additionally, looking to legal texts of the time, the Court found that a legal mistake included “errors of law or fact.” The Court concluded that, “regardless whether ‘mistake’ in Rule 60(b)(1) carries its ordinary meaning or legal meaning, it includes a judge’s mistakes of law.”

When Rule 60(b)(1) was created, it specifically referred to a party’s mistake (not a judge’s) because it included the word “his,” referring to the movant, according to the Court. However, in 1946, the word “his” was deleted. “Thus, as currently written, ‘mistake’ in Rule 60(b)(1) includes legal errors made by judges,” the Court declared.

The Court rejected both the Government’s and Kemp’s versions of what “mistake” means under the current Rule 60(b)(1). The Government argued that a mistake under this provision includes legal errors but only “obvious” ones. This is the position that most Courts of Appeals have taken, see, e.g., In re Ta Chi Navigation (Panama) Corp. S.A., 728 F.2d 699 (5th Cir. 1984), SCOTUS acknowledged but reiterated that such an interpretation isn’t supported by the foregoing historical analysis of the relevant English language and legal dictionaries. In addition, the Court doubted the “administrability” of a rule that requires courts to determine whether a mistake was made and determine whether the mistake was sufficiently “obvious.” The Court stated that the “text does not support—let alone require—that judges engage in this sort of complex line-drawing.”

Kemp, on the other hand, argued that Rule 60(b)(1) encompasses only non-judicial mistakes—those made by the parties, not judges. He asserted that the other types of errors noted in Rule 60(b)(1), which include inadvertence, surprise, and excusable neglect, are non-judicial errors, and so a mistake should be deemed a non-judicial mistake under this provision. But the Court disagreed. “Because the words surrounding ‘mistake’ in Rule 60(b)(1) do not connote exclusively non-legal or non-judicial errors, they do not favor Kemp’s narrower reading,” the Court stated.

Thus, the Court held that a judge’s error of law is a “mistake” under Rule 60(b)(1) “based on [its] text, structure, and history.”

Accordingly, because Kemp’s motion was cognizable under Rule 60(b)(1), which is subject to a one-year limitations period, and thus his motion was untimely, the Court affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment. See: Kemp v. United States, 142 S. Ct. 1856 (2022). 

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