Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Standards for Setting Aside Default Judgment Due to Mistake, Inadvertence, Surprise, or Excusable Neglect — Rule 60(b)(1)

From Fine v. Evergreen Aviation Ground Logistics Enter., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22611 (E.D. Tex. Mar. 20, 2009):

Granting or denying a motion to set aside a default judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) rests within the sound discretion of the trial court….Rule 60(b) provides the Court with "a grand reservoir of equitable power to do justice in a particular case." ... The Court's discretion, however, is not unbounded; it must be exercised in light of the balance struck by the federal rules between the goal of finality and the "incessant command of the court's conscience that justice be done in light of all of the facts." ... The Fifth Circuit has adopted a policy in favor of resolving cases on their merits and against the use of default judgments….

Rule 60(b) is a "remedial provision intended to prevent injustice by allowing parties their day in court even though some technical error has occurred which would otherwise be grounds for default." ... Rule 60(b) provides five specified reasons for which relief may be granted and contains a sixth catch-all category for reasons not specifically listed. ***

[Footnote 1] Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) provides that on motion, and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; (2) newly discovered evidence; (3) fraud; (4) the judgment is void; (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or vacated, or is no longer equitable; and (6) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.

Rule 60(b)(1) provides relief from a default judgment that results from mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.... Rule 60(b)(1) is understood to encompass situations in which the movant's failure to respond is attributable to his own negligence. See Pioneer Inv. Servs. Co. v. Brunswick Assocs. Ltd. Partnership, 507 U.S. 380, 394 (1993).

[Footnote 2] Although decided in a bankruptcy context, the Court's interpretation of "excusable neglect" is specifically discussed in terms of Rule 60(b) and rests upon the plain meaning of those words. It is clear the Court's ruling applies in non-bankruptcy contexts as well. See Stutson v. United States, 516 U.S. 193, 194-96 (1996).

Because Congress provided no guideposts for determining what categories of neglect are excusable, the court, in Pioneer, emphasized an equitable inquiry "taking account of all relevant circumstances surrounding the party's omission." ... Although the concept of excusable neglect is "somewhat elastic," it generally excludes gross carelessness, ignorance of the rules, or ignorance of the law….

The Fifth Circuit has directed district courts to consider three factors in determining whether sufficient grounds exist for setting aside a default judgment under Rule 60(b)(1): (1) the extent of prejudice to the plaintiff; (2) the merits of the defendant's asserted defense; and (3) the culpability of the defendant's conduct. ... These factors are not "talismanic" and the court may consider other factors including whether the motion was made within a reasonable time, whether the interests in deciding the case outweighs the interest in the finality of the judgment, whether the public interest is implicated, and the amount of money at stake.

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