A Judge’s Mistake on the Law is Grounds for Relief from Judgment – If Timely Kemp v. United States – Decided June 13, 2022

Aug 2022

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) allows a party to seek relief from an incorrect judgment or order.  Specifically, Rule 60(b)(1) states that a “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect” are grounds for relief from a final judgment, order, or proceeding.  In Kemp v. United States, the question raised to the Supreme Court of the United States was whether the term “mistake” in that procedural rule includes a judge’s error of law.

The Plaintiff, Dexter Kemp, and several co-defendants were charged and convicted of drug and firearms offenses. Kemp and some of the co-defendants appealed, but their sentences were affirmed.  The Plaintiff had moved the district court to vacate his sentence.  Eventually, the district court denied the request concluding it was untimely.  Several years later, Kemp sought to reopen these proceedings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6), a catchall provision that states that any other reason justifying release may be brought “within a reasonable time.”  The district court disagreed with Kemp’s argument and held that Court’s legal error (purportedly miscalculating a deadline for filing a motion) was governed by Rule 60(b)(1) rather than Rule 60(b)(6).  The district court did determine that the term “mistake” in Rule 60(b)(1) includes mistakes made by judges.  Consequently, the district court concluded that Kemp’s motion to reopen the proceedings was untimely since it was filed after the one-year limitation.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision.

On June 13, 2022, the Supreme Court decided that the term “mistake” encompassed a judge’s error of law and that it is not limited to legal error or non-judicial and non-legal errors.  Accordingly, a party that files a motion to reopen a judgment based on an alleged legal error made by a judge falls within the scope of Rule 60(b)(1) and is thus subject to the one-year limitation established by Rule 60(c)(1).  Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court and the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, given that Kemp’s motion to reopen the judgment was untimely.

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