May 26, 2015 § Leave a comment
The COA’s decision in Crossley, et al. v. Moore, et al., decided April 21, 2015, addresses an important distinction between an appeal on the merits and what is reviewable in an appeal from a court’s MRCP 60(b) ruling.
In that case, the chancellor had stricken Crossley’s (the collective name for the defendants that this post will apply) answer and counterclaim due to a prolonged and obstinate refusal to cooperate and obey court orders for discovery. The judge entered a default judgment against the defendants, and set a hearing on damages. At that hearing, he heard testimony and entered a judgment against the defendants for more than $760,000 in damages, which included $26,000 in attorney’s fees. Crossley did not appeal.
Five months after entry of the judgment, Crossley filed a motion pursuant to MRCP 60(b) to set aside the judgments, claiming (1) that they never received notice of the hearing on sanctions for discovery violations, and (2) that they never received notice of hearing on the damages issue. At hearing, however, the defendants admitted that they did receive notice of the sanctions hearing, but insisted that they had not as to the damages hearing. The chancellor overruled the motion as to the sanctions hearing, leaving the default judgment intact, but granted a rehearing on the issue of damages.
Crossley appealed, arguing that the trial judge was in error in dismissing their answer and counterclaim based on sanctions.
The COA affirmed. Judge Maxwell wrote for the majority:
¶13. We begin with the discovery sanction. And the first order of business is to determine just exactly what Crossley and Templet are appealing. From their brief, they seem to argue they are appealing the merits of the August 2009 decision to strike their answer. But that decision led to a default judgment—a judgment that became final in March 2010. And this final judgment was not appealed. Nor was this judgment set aside. While the chancellor did order a new hearing on damages, Crossley and Templet acknowledge in their brief that the chancellor “refused to set aside the judgment itself.”
¶14. With the underlying default judgment left undisturbed, what Crossley and Templet are in fact appealing is the denial of their Rule 60(b) motion to set aside. See Blackmon v. W.S. Badcock Corp., Inc., 342 So. 2d 367, 371 (Ala. Civ. App. 1977) (holding that a Rule 60(b) ruling to vacate a damages award and conduct a new hearing did not confer on the movant the right to address the merits of the underlying default judgment). As we recently reiterated, this court’s “review of the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion is extremely limited.” Davis v. Vance, 138 So. 3d 961, 963 (¶1) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). We are “not allowed to inquire into the actual merits of the underlying judgment.” Id. This is because Rule 60(b) is not a vehicle to relitigate the merits of a trial judge’s decision. Woods v. Victory Mktg., LLC, 111 So. 3d 1234, 1237 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). So even if the chancellor had done something that may have been reversible error had Crossley and Templet timely appealed, the fact remains that they did not appeal. And Rule 60(b) cannot be used to get around this. See Williams v. New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc., 728 F.2d 730, 736 (5th Cir. 1984).
¶15. This court reviews the denial of their Rule 60(b) motion for abuse of discretion. Stringfellow v. Stringfellow, 451 So. 2d 219, 221 (Miss. 1984).
That’s a critical point to grasp. You can not use R60(b) as a vehicle to open the merits of the underlying judgment to appellate review. Once the deadline for appeal has past, the judgment itself is final and not reviewable on the merits. The only issue on appeal is whether the trial judge abused his or her discretion in ruling on the R60(b) motion. In this particular case, the COA ruled that the chancellor had not abused his discretion.
Another take-away from this case is that continued obstinate evasion of discovery and failure to abide by court orders for discovery have painful consequences that can radically alter the landscape of a lawsuit.