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Brandt v. Menard, 2020 VT 61
Long story short, this case gets remanded to the trial court because the mechanism by which Mr. Brandt seeks relief is unusual but not un-possible. I say it that way because “impossible” seems too strong and “not impossible” seems terrible.
Mr. Brandt filed suit in 2017 and the case was dismissed. The trial court made its decision on September 11, 2017 and mailed a copy to Mr. Brandt where had had been housed in prison. On October 2, 2017 the court received the copies back as “undeliverable,” as Mr. Brandt had been transferred to a different prison. To be clear, this wouldn’t have been a move he asked for or coordinated – the government would have moved him there or authorized his move to the new prison.
He wrote a letter to the court on February 27, 2018 asking for copies of the rulings. The court mailed out those copies the next day. On March 19, 2018, Mr. Brandt filed a motion under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to reopen the judgment. His goal was to be able to appeal. However, the original appeal deadline had passed and he missed it, likely because he didn’t receive the paperwork in time, having been moved to a new prison.
The court denied the motion, reasoning that it’s actually Vermont Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(d) that governs appeal deadlines, and if he had wanted to file to seek to extend his deadline, he would have had to have done that following that rule. Mr. Brandt appeals this denial, and SCOV reverses.
Very briefly, Rule 60(b) is the mechanism by which a party can seek relief from judgment in some pretty narrow circumstances. A party only gets a year to file this motion, and it can only be used to prevent hardship or injustice. This doesn’t mean a party gets to file for this kind of relief in a backward-looking way to protect itself from things that happened during litigation, and it’s not meant to replace an appeal.
What was less clear, though was whether a trial court could, under Rule 60(b), vacate a judgment and re-enter a judgment to change the judgment date so a party could have a new appeal deadline.
There isn’t unanimous agreement about this among other courts. Vermont’s civil rules generally track the federal civil rules. There’s a lot of guidance available at the state level by comparing the situations to federal cases that have happened. Some courts have agreed to reopen and reenter a judgment where a party failed to receive notice (through no fault of their own, I should add). Other courts have indicated that the appellate rules provide the remedy in this situation. Different states have also reacted differently.
SCOV decides that the relevant Vermont rules do not bar the kind of relief Mr. Brandt seeks. Because Civil Rule 60(b) tends to have an equitable purpose, and is usually used to prevent hardship or injustice, this can be the appropriate rule to use.
However, SCOV is also very clear this can be reserved only for “rare, exceptional circumstances.” SCOV says in determining whether there are such circumstances, it would be relevant to consider whether the clerk provided notice as required by the rules, whether the party had actual notice, whether the relief sought would create prejudice to the other party, whether the movant acted diligently to try to learn about the date of the decision, whether that party moved diligently after actually getting notice, and any other “extraordinary, unique, or compelling circumstances.”
SCOV isn’t convinced that mere lack of notice is enough to be able to do this.
Looking at this particular case, Mr. Brandt said he didn’t learn about the judgment through no fault of his own. SCOV’s thought is that because he filed the Rule 60(b) motion within 1 year of judgment, and because he’s got an argument to make, he should be allowed to have a hearing and make the argument. That doesn’t mean that the court has to rule in his favor – it just has to take evidence sufficient to be able to make findings one way or another.
So, this gets reversed and remanded. Like I said, not un-possible.