Monday, February 9, 2009

Rule 1.540(b) motions and why their subparts and timing can be like cinnamon swirls

Rule 1.540(b) motions to set aside judgments can lead you full circle. An order granting a Rule 1.540 motion is subject to a gross abuse of discretion standard of review. See North Shore Hosp., Inc. v. Barber, 143 So. 2d 849 (Fla.1962); Collins v. Collins, 519 So. 2d 729 (Fla. 2d DCA 1988); DeRuyter v. State, 521 So. 2d 135 (Fla. 5th DCA 1988).

A greater showing of an abuse of discretion is required to reverse an order granting a Rule 1.540 motion than is required to reverse an order denying a Rule 1.540 motion. See Geer v. Jacobsen, 880 So. 2d 717 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004); Lloyd's Underwriter's at London v. Ruby, Inc., 801 So. 2d 138 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001); Lehner v. Durso, 816 So. 2d 1171 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002); Kapetanopoulos v. Herbert, 449 So. 2d 947 (Fla. 2d DCA 1984); Jackson v. Jackson, 542 So. 2d 481 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989).

Rule 1.540(b) lists five categories of substantive grounds, any one of which is available to support an order granting relief from a judgment:
(b) Mistakes; Inadvertence; Excusable Neglect; Newly Discovered Evidence; Fraud; etc. --On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, decree, order, or proceeding for the following reasons:
(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
(2) newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial or rehearing;
(3) fraud (whether heretofore denominated intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;
(4) that the judgment or decree is void; or
(5) that the judgment or decree has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment or decree upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment or decree should have prospective application.

A motion for relief from a judgment may be granted under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540(b)(5) on three grounds: that the debt on which the judgment is based has been satisfied or discharged (See Barnett Bank v. American Medical Express Corp., 671 So. 2d 819 (Fla. 3d DCA 1996).), the decree or judgment on which it was based has been reversed (See Riley v. Gustinger, 252 So. 2d 583 (Fla. 3d DCA 1971)), or the ''prospective application'' of the judgment is now inequitable. See Bliss v. Carmona, 418 So. 2d 1017 (Fla. 3d DCA 1982) (after plaintiff won the right to specific performance but did not comply with the judgment the court granted the defendant's motion to vacate the judgment and restore the parties to their prejudgment positions).

The Third District Court of Appeal explained the reason for the rule in Cutler Ridge Corp. v. Green Springs, Inc., 249 So. 2d 91, 93 (Fla. 3d DCA 1971): "[t]he general purpose of the rule [1.540(b)] is to enable the court to grant relief against an unjust decree, and should be liberally construed to advance such remedy." See First Union Nat'l Bank v. Yost, 622 So. 2d 111 (Fla. 1st DCA 1993) (filing a notice of appeal tolled the one year period and, although earlier motions were deemed abandoned by filing the notice, the time for filing new motions under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540 recommenced when the appeal became final).

As to the timing of a Rule 1.540(b) motion, motions under subsections (4) and (5) only require that they “shall be filed within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1), (2), and (3) not more than 1 year after the judgment, decree, order, or proceeding was entered or taken, except that there shall be no time limit for motions based on fraudulent financial affidavits in marital cases.” But litigants can sometimes get those deadlines confused and the confusion only goes away after reading, and rereading the rule in its entirety. Despite the rule’s ambiguity, it is a vital tool to setting aside judgments that have errors or are plainly unjust.

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