Gonzalez v. Nguyen (4/12/08)

An important decision on Rule 60(c)(6) (now 60(b)(6)).

Plaintiff took default judgment in a personal-injury case. Defendant then appeared and moved to set it aside under Rule 60(c)(6) (“any other reason justifying relief”), arguing that he wouldn’t contest liability but that the judgment was excessive. The trial court granted the motion. So far, so ordinary; this has for years been a standard insurance-defense argument, one of the few reliable uses of 60(c)(6). But then the Court of Appeals issued a memorandum reversing for lack of meritorious defense or excusable neglect. This wasn’t entirely the Court of Appeals’ fault; the Supreme Court admits that “Rule 60(c)(6) jurisprudence is not a model of clarity or consistency.” So it issues this opinion to straighten things out.

When “the record suggests that the judgment amount is excesssive, a trial court appropriately may provide Rule 60(c)(6) relief.” That the judgment is excessive is a meritorious defense. The showing of it “need not be strong” though it must be “greater than mere speculation.”

Some cases suggest that evidence of the meritorious defense must be extraneous to the judgment record. “We do not find any such requirement in the language or purpose of the rule.” “Rather, if the motion relies on evidence of a meritorious defense that appears in the record, the rule plainly vests authority in the trial court to grant relief, and we disavow language in prior decisions that suggests evidence outside the extant record is necessary.”

Excusable neglect, which is 60(c)(1), isn’t an issue since it and 60(c)(6) are “mutually exclusive.” The latter rule “contemplates circumstances that do not fit into the other . . . subsections.”

The court vacates the lower court’s opinion and affirms the trial court’s order.

(Opinion: Gonzalez v. Nguyen)