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The Legal Brief

Kemp v. United States – The Supreme Court Finds that a Judge’s Error of Law is a “Mistake” Under Rule 60(b)(1)

June 16, 2022

By: Anna Williams and Thomas J. Hurney Jr.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1) provides that a court may relieve a party from a final judgment due to “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect[.]” Rules 60(b)(2)-(5) provide more narrowly tailored reasons for relief, ranging from newly discovered evidence to fraud and void judgements. Rule 60(b)(6), however, serves as a catch-all provision providing relief “for any other reason that justifies relief.” Rule 60(c) clarifies that motions under Rule 60(b) must be made within a reasonable time, with the additional limitation of one year “after the entry of the judgement” for Rules 60(b)(1)-(3). Thus, to avoid the one-year limitation period, a petitioner’s claim must fall under the coveted catch-all provision of Rule 60(b)(6).[1]

The question thus remains: What is a “mistake?" In Kemp v. United States, Dexter Kemp and seven codefendants were convicted for various drug and gun crimes. Kemp attempted to vacate his conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 in April 2015, but the Southern District of Florida found the motion untimely because it was filed more than a year after Kemp’s judgment became final in February 2014. Two years later, Kemp again attempted to reopen his case under Rule 60(b), alleging that the one-year period should have begun to run in May 2014 when all parties’ petitions for rehearing were denied. Although the Eleventh Circuit agreed that Kemp’s § 2255 motion was timely, it nevertheless concluded that the judge’s error in calculating the beginning of the one-year period was a “mistake” for purposes of Rule 60(b)(1) and thus Kemp’s Rule 60 motion was subject to the one-year statute of limitations and was again untimely.

In an 8 to 1 decision authored by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court sided with the Eleventh Circuit and found that nothing in the text or history of Rule 60(b)(1) suggests that it was intended to exclude judicial error. Citing to Webster’s and Black’s Law dictionaries, the Court reasoned that the term “mistake” has never been limited to just factual errors, both in ordinary and legal usage. The Court’s decision was also grounded in the fact that the original draft of the rule initially included the pronoun “his,” intended to refer to a party’s own mistake. This pronoun, however, was removed in 1946. Thus, had the drafters intended judicial errors to be excluded from Rule 60(b)(1), the language would have remained unaltered.

Despite summarily dismissing Kemp’s protestations, the Court also declined to accept the Government’s position that the Rule applies to only “obvious” legal errors, emphasizing that such a holding would raise questions of administrability and would not comport with a standard reading of the term “mistake.” The Court asserted that any confusion or overlap that may arise from its interpretation can be resolved by the courts as a matter of statutory interpretation.

Justice Sotomayor concurred to emphasize that petitioners may still utilize Rule 60(b)(6) in circumstances such as a change in controlling law. Justice Gorsuch dissented, chiefly arguing that certiorari should have never been granted and that the issue would be better addressed through rulemaking.

What does this all mean? One potential issue noted by Justice Gorsuch is that without more guidance, every judicial legal error “is fodder for a collateral attack under Rule 60(b)(1).” The Court seemingly broadened the standard when it rejected the Government’s “obvious error” argument, leaving litigants with little clarity on what exact kind of errors are ripe for the Rule 60(b)(1). Thus, courts across the country may begin to see more enterprising petitioners utilizing the “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect” provision of Rule 60(b)(1) to challenge unfavorable rulings.


[1] Rules 60(b)(4) and 60(b)(5) are not subject to the one-year limitations period. However, these two subsections apply to void and otherwise satisfied judgements, respectively. Neither of these two provisions applied to the facts in Kemp.

 

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