THE GREAT RESERVOIR OF EQUITABLE POWER

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

We talked here about the COA decision in Brown v. Weatherspoon, handed down November 6, 2012. That earlier post dealt with attorney’s fees.

There is another aspect of the case that warrants your attention. It has to do with MRCP 60(b)(6).

In the case at the trial level, Kenyader Weatherspoon had agreed to a court order, entered in 2002, adjudicating him to be the father of a child born to Serhonda Brown. In 2008, the opinion tells us, Weatherspoon agreed to DNA testing to determine parentage (the opinion is silent as to who prompted the testing, and why he agreed to it). The test results came in showing zero probability that he was the father, and five months later he filed a pleading seeking to set aside the prior judgment under MRCP 60(b)(6), which allows a court to relieve a party from a judgment for “any other reason justifying relief from judgment.” The chancellor set aside the judgment, and Brown appealed.

Judge Roberts’ opinion succinctly states the law that applies in this instance:

¶12. The chancellor granted Weatherspoon’s motion under Rule 60(b)(6). “Relief under Rule 60(b)(6) is reserved for extraordinary and compelling circumstances.” [MAS v. Miss. DHS, 842 So.2d 527.] at 530 (¶12). Rule 60(b)(6) has also been described as “grand reservoir of equitable power to do justice in a particular case.” Id. But it “is not an escape hatch for litigants who had procedural opportunities afforded under other rules and who without cause failed to pursue those procedural remedies.” Id.

¶13. In M.A.S., a man had consented to paternity of a child, but through DNA testing he later learned that he was not the child’s biological father. M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 528 (¶1). M.A.S. successfully moved to set aside the prior order of filiation. Id. at 529 (¶5). The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the decision to set aside an order of filiation and stated that M.A.S. was “the archetype for the application of Rule 60(b)(6).” Id. at (¶18). Despite the fact that the movant in M.A.S. had paid child support for ten years, the supreme court held that he had filed his Rule 60(b) motion within a reasonable time after he learned that he was not the child’s father. Id. at 530 (¶15). Brown notes that the movant in M.A.S. was seventeen years old when he signed a stipulated paternity agreement. Id. at 528 (¶3). Brown argues that this case is distinguished from M.A.S. because Weatherspoon was twenty-four when he signed the stipulated paternity agreement. But the M.A.S. court did not base any part of its rationale on the movant’s age.

¶14. Brown also claims Weatherspoon’s motion was untimely. A Rule 60(b)(6) motion is timely if it is filed “within a reasonable time.” M.R.C.P. 60(b)(6). “What constitutes reasonable time must of necessity depend upon the facts in each individual case.” M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 530 (¶14) (citation omitted). Relevant factors include whether the movant’s delay prejudiced the nonmoving party and whether there is a good reason for the movant’s delay. Id. According to Brown, Weatherspoon’s Rule 60(b)(6) motion was untimely because he filed it more than six years after he signed the stipulated paternity order. But the supreme court has held that the movant in M.A.S. timely filed his Rule 60(b)(6) motion even though he did so approximately nine years after he signed a stipulated paternity order. Id. at (¶13).

¶15. Weatherspoon did not definitively learn that M.B. was not his child until shortly after DNA testing was completed on March 19, 2008. The record does not indicate that Weatherspoon had earlier opportunities to seek DNA testing. He filed his Rule 60(b)(6) motion approximately five months later. Under the circumstances, the chancellor did not abuse her discretion when she implicitly found good cause for Weatherspoon’s delay. Moreover, Brown was not prejudiced by Weatherspoon’s delay. Although he had accrued unpaid child support, Weatherspoon paid Brown a significant amount of child support for a child who was not his.

¶16. “Consideration of a Rule 60(b) motion does require that a balance be struck between granting a litigant a hearing on the merits with the need and desire to achieve finality.” M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 531 (¶17) (citation and internal quotation omitted). Weatherspoon has been obligated to pay and has paid child support for someone else’s child. As the supreme court stated in M.A.S., “finality should yield to fairness here.” Id. Following M.A.S., we find that the chancellor did not abuse her discretion when she granted Weatherspoon’s Rule 60(b) motion. There is no merit to this issue.

“Finality should yield to fairness here.” Indeed.

When no other avenue for relief appears viable, consider Rule 60. There might just be a way to get what your client wants by using that rule, particularly (b)(6).

Remember, though, that the motion must be filed within a reasonable time, and it will not work where your client esszentially slept on his or her rights. You can read a dramatic example at this previous post, which did not involve Rule 60 per se, but which illustrates the ruinous effect of slumbering on one’s rights.

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