No More Excuses: Refusing to Condone Mere Carelessness or Negligence under the "Excusable Neglect" Standard in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1)
Weathersbee, Brett Warren, Vanderbilt Law Review
I. INTRODUCTION Rule 60(b)1 is an attempt to codify the equitable, common law practice of reforming judgments under special circumstances.2 The rule, inter alia, authorizes a court to relieve a party from a default judgment for "excusable neglect."3 This standard, however, is not defined in the rules, and courts have struggled with its meaning. Some circuits define the term liberally and often grant requests to vacate default judgments.4 Others adopt a strict interpretation and consistently refuse to vacate default judgments resulting from mere carelessness or negligence.5 Recently, in Pioneer Investment Services Co. v. Brunswick Associates Ltd. Partnership,6 the Supreme Court clarified the term "excusable neglect" under one of the Bankruptcy Rules. Given the differing goals and policies of default judgments and bankruptcies, as well as the internal problems of the decision itself, however, the decision should not be extended to determinations of excusable neglect under Rule 60(b)(1).
Part II of this Note examines the history of Rule 60(b), analyzing the background and source of original Rule 60(b), as well as the subsequent amendments to the rule. In addition, Part II describes the construction and application of Rule 60(b), outlining the remedial nature of the rule and the competing policy concerns of finality of judgments versus the preference for deciding cases on the merits. Part III discusses the inconsistent interpretations of "excusable neglect" under Rule 60(b)(1) in cases concerning mere carelessness or negligence. This section explores why some circuits consistently vacate default judgments except upon a showing of culpable conduct or bad faith, while other circuits refuse to vacate default judgments occurring as a result of mere carelessness or negligence. Part IV examines both the majority approach in the Pioneer decision and the dissent's concerns, paying particular attention to internal inconsistencies in the majority opinion. Finally, Part V addresses the inapplicability of Pioneer to the determination of excusable neglect under Rule 60(b)(1). The Note concludes that courts should adopt a strict interpretation of "excusable neglect" and refuse to condone mere carelessness or negligence under Rule 60(b)(1).
II. HISTORY AND CONSTRUCTION OF RULE 60(b)
A. Source and Background of Rule 60(b)
Prior to the adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court had the power to grant relief from a final judgment primarily during the term in which the judgment was entered.7 Otherwise, relief was available only in limited circumstances,8 through a process admittedly "shrouded in ancient lore and mystery."9 The procedures were so inflexible that many courts established local rules extending the term of court for a specified time from the entry of final judgment, to allow sufficient time for requests for relief.10
In response to this inflexible situation, the Supreme Court's Advisory Committee formulated Rule 60(b).11 In the rule's original form, the committee stated that the only basis for relief was "mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect."12 The rule also contained a provision that it "[did] not limit the power of a court . . . to entertain an action to relieve a party from a judgment, order, or proceeding."13 This provision preserved the old ancillary and equitable remedies and allowed a court to grant relief on grounds other than those specifically listed in the rule.14
Since 1937, Rule 60(b) has been amended three separate times.15 The primary changes abolished the old ancillary and equitable remedies,16 enlarged the stated grounds for relief,17 and eliminated the qualifying pronoun "his" from the rule so as to include the mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect of others as a basis for relief.18 The rule, as it now reads, contains six clauses and lists fourteen grounds on which a party may base a motion for relief.19
B. Construction and Application of Rule 60(b)
When formulating Rule 60(b), the drafters took into account such factors as the desirability of this type of remedy, the need for finality, the preference for deciding cases on the merits, and the desire that justice be accomplished. …