WHIRLPOOL OF POST-TRIAL RELIEF
April 22, 2013 § 3 Comments
Anyone who has ever canoed or kayaked a swift-flowing stream knows that you can get caught in a whirlpool of cross-currents that is mighty difficult to get free of, and, instead of paddling along one’s intended course, one paddles frantically to break loose.
That’s the effect of what happened in McBride v. McBride, a COA case decided April 2, 2013. In that case, Robert and Vanessa were involved in a divorce. The court rendered a final judgment, and Vanessa filed a Rule 59 motion for rehearing (which she styled as a motion for reconsideration, btw). Some four months later Robert filed his “Motion for rehearing on Vanessa McBride’s Motion for Reconsideration, or, in the Alternative, for New Trial.” So, what we have here is a motion to “reconsider” the reconsideration; a post-trial whirlpool, if you will. Vanessa appealed.
In its opinion, the COA says at ¶13, “In her brief, Vanessa claims that Robert’s motion was not allowed ‘as the law allows one motion for reconsideration/new trial after a judgment is entered.’ Yet, Vanessa does not cite any authority for this legal principle.” And at ¶16: “As much as we may like to impose a one-motion-for-reconsideration rule, there is simply no authority to impose such a limitation …”
Now, it’s unclear to me exactly what Vanessa was attempting to argue with her one-motion claim, but I do believe there is a one-motion-for-Rule 59- relief rule expounded by our courts. In Edwards v. Roberts, 771 So.2d 378, (Miss.App. 2000), the COA addressed the issue in the context of a circuit court ruling on a motion for a new trial, which is the circuit court counterpart to the chancery court motion for rehearing, both of which are brought under MRCP 59. Here’s what the court said:
¶ 21. We start with the settled law that after a motion for new trial has been denied, no right exists to file for reconsideration. We find that reasoning equally applicable to motions for JNOV. “When the procedure authorizing a motion for a new trial has been followed and, pursuant to proper notice, the parties have made their representations to the court, and the court has duly considered and made his decision upon that motion, that completes both the duty and the prerogative of the court.” Griffin v. State, 565 So.2d 545, 550 (Miss.1990) (emphasis added). In Griffin, the lower court sustained two criminal defendants’ motion for new trial as to two of the counts, and overruled as to one count. Id. at 545. The defendants fled and were captured several years later. Id. At that time the State moved to set aside the order granting a new trial. Id. The judge sustained the State’s motions because he believed that he had made an error at law in granting a new trial. Id. On appeal, the Supreme Court found that the judge had no authority to revoke his earlier order for a new trial. Id.
¶ 22. The Griffin court relied on other states that had addressed the same question. Among other authorities, the court quoted the California Supreme Court’s holding that, “It has long been the rule that ‘A final order granting or denying [a motion for a new trial], regularly made, exhausts the court’s jurisdiction, and cannot be set aside or modified by the trial court except to correct clerical error or to give relief from inadvertence….’ ” Griffin, 565 So.2d at 549 (citing Wenzoski v. Central Banking Sys., 43 Cal.3d 539, 237 Cal.Rptr. 167, 736 P.2d 753, 754 (1987)). Once a motion for new trial has been ruled upon:
[I]f the party ruled against were permitted to go beyond the rules, make a motion for reconsideration, and persuade the judge to reverse himself, the question arises, why should not the other party who is now ruled against be permitted to make a motion for re-re-consideration, asking the court to again reverse himself? … This reflection brings one to realize what an unsatisfactory situation would exist if a judge could carry in his mind indefinitely a state of uncertainty as to what the final resolution of the matter should be.
Griffin, 565 So.2d at 549–50 (citing Drury v. Lunceford, 18 Utah 2d 74, 415 P.2d 662, 663–64 (1966)).
 ¶ 23. Though Griffin is a criminal case, the Supreme Court’s principal authorities for holding it improper to move for reconsideration of a motion for new trial were civil cases under versions of Rule 59. The Supreme Court’s conclusion that ruling on one motion for new trial exhausts the power of the court to entertain another such motion, certainly has an impact here. Until a judgment is final, a court has the authority to amend it. Griffin v. Tall Timbers Development, Inc., 681 So.2d 546, 552 (Miss.1996). Conversely, once it is final the authority is lost. The court’s initiating it own reconsideration removes the finality of the judgment after an earlier motion was denied. That creates the same difficulties that were discussed in Griffin v. State. Just as a second motion under Rule 59(a) cannot be brought by a party after an earlier Rule 59(a) motion has been denied, neither can the trial court itself entertain its own reconsideration under Rule 59(d) or Rule 50(b).
¶ 24. This is not to say that the finality of the judgment created by the denial of the first motion for new trial is absolutely unchangeable. Griffin v. State itself says that one last tool remains—correcting clerical error, relieving inadvertence, responding to newly discovered evidence, or otherwise considering the grounds for a Rule 60 motion. Griffin, 565 So.2d at 549. Since the state and federal versions of Rule 60 are similar, we can seek a better understanding of what can be achieved under Rule 60 by examining an explanation of federal caselaw. The Mississippi Supreme Court has said “the federal construction of the counterpart rule will be ‘persuasive of what our construction of our similarly worded rule ought to be.’ ” Bruce v. Bruce, 587 So.2d 898, 903 (Miss.1991) (citation omitted). The following section of an eminent treatise on the federal rules first explains that a denial of a new trial motion cannot be reconsidered, and then suggests what remains:
Term time as both a grant and limitation upon the district court’s power over its final judgments has been eliminated.[ footnote omitted] In lieu thereof and in the interest of judgment finality a short time period, that is not subject to enlargement, has been substituted, within which a party may move for a new trial or to alter or amend the judgment. When the court has decided such a motion in a way that the finality of the judgment has been restored, then relief, if any, should come by appeal or by a motion under Rule 60(b), which does not affect the finality of the judgment or suspend its operation. It would be destructive of the general aim of the Rules to permit successive attacks upon final judgments on motions to reconsider orders that deny new trial, or that deny or grant an alteration or amendment of the judgment.
The logic is clear that if there were no limit to motions for rehearing, there would never be an appeal from a final judgment as long as the successive motions are pending. It would be like getting caught in that whirlpool when you’re trying to paddle to finality.
McBride was reversed and remanded on other grounds. Judge Griffis’s opinion addresses the vernacular use of the term “reconsideration” at ¶15. It’s a subject we’ve discussed here previously.