Minjares v. State (CA1 10/29/09)

Citing Rule 60(c)(6) is normally an act of desperation. But here a litigant not only won the motion, it did so without even making it.

Minjares was hurt in a a car accident in Kingman. She sued the other driver and also sued Kingman, Mohave County, and the State on road-design issues. The County escaped by dismissal before trial, Kingman by JMOL at trial; the jury awarded just over three million dollars and found the State 33% at fault. Judgment was entered accordingly, plus post-judgment interest at 10%

The State appealed the Kingman JMOL; it lost. It then filed a motion in the trial court under 60(a) and 60(b)(2) asking it to “correct” the judgment to state a different interest rate for appeal, pursuant to 41-622f: “Interest on any judgment against this state  . . .  shall accrue at the average yield offered by United States treasury bills during the course of the appeal.”  The court granted the motion.

Minjares appealed, arguing that res judicata barred relief, that the State had waived the issue, and that Rule 60 does not permit amending a judgment after appeal.

It is not clear from the opinion that anybody in the case, including the Court of Appeals, had a very firm grasp of res judicata or collateral estoppel but the opinion decided that they don’t apply.

As to waiver, the State argued in essence that it couldn’t ask that the judgment reflect a reduced interest rate on appeal until it appealed, by which time it couldn’t ask for it because it hadn’t asked for it in the court below, and anyway, if it won the appeal it might not have had to pay interest in the long run anyway, and on top of that, it couldn’t know how much the “average yield” on T-bills would be. Why it couldn’t or didn’t simply request that the judgment incorporate the statute or statutory language is left tantalizingly unexplained. Division One, although with a comment apparently intending to suggest  that to its eye there was a waiver, ruled that it “cannot say” that the trial court committed “clear error” in finding no waiver.

This was, after all, the trial court’s factual finding,  and so the ruling is perhaps correct even though the State’s arguments were silly. (For some reason the opinion does not – contrary to modern convention – explain at great length the applicable standard of review, nor mention it at all. We applaud this – it shouldn’t be necessary to mention the standard unless it is an issue of dispute in the case.)

Judge Norris dissented on the waiver issue, taking the eminently sensible position that the State could have and should have taken care of the matter before judgment was entered. Had she been the trial judge, we would have had a more reasonable result.

Finally, as to Rule 60, the court ruled that 60(a) and 60(b)(2) didn’t apply since the judgment was correct when entered.  The “omission of a proviso that, if the State appealed, the interest rate would be modified to the average interest of treasury bills during the pendency of the appeal” was not a clerical error nor a mistake about money since the trial court hadn’t intended to include it. (Of course, this admits that the court could have included it and therefore that the State’s waiver arguments were ridiculous.)

But the court then considered Rule 60(c)(6), using one of those rules that the courts use or ignore as they please: an appellate court will affirm a trial court’s ruling if there is any reason why the ruling was correct. The Court of Appeals decided that 60(c)(6) relief was appropriate, citing a case in which a wife was allowed to modify her divorce decree when her ex filed bankruptcy, which she hadn’t expected. Why should that allow the party who did the “unexpected” to amend a judgment to its benefit by incorporating after the fact a statute that it knew about  as a matter of law at the time of the original judgment? Also unexplained. The court concludes that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting Rule 60 relief for the wrong reasons.

The last several pages of the opinion are devoted to deciding that the statute means what it more-or-less seems to say, namely, that the T-bill interest rate applies to judgments against the State while they are on appeal.