Beware the Appeal Deadline, Part 2: Motions to Amend a Judgment v. Motions for Relief from Judgment

In Board of Overseers v. Brown, the Law Court addressed the timeliness of an appeal following a “motion for clarification” of a judgment.  In doing so, the Law Court drew an interesting distinction between requests for relief that qualify as a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59(e) (which toll the appeal deadline) and those that are categorized as a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b) (which do not toll the appeal deadline).  This distinction poses potential traps for the unwary.

Brown involved a bar complaint against an attorney for violations of the Maine Rules of Professional Conduct, which led to the imposition of sanctions by a single justice.  Within 14 days of entry of judgment (perhaps not coincidentally, the deadline for a Rule 59(e) motion), the Board of Overseers of the Bar filed a “motion for clarification,” without citing the authority upon which it relied, seeking additional sanctions.  The single justice granted the motion; the attorney appealed 21 days later.

On appeal, the Board argued that the appeal was untimely because it was filed more than 21 days after the original entry of judgment, which is the general limit set out under Maine Rule of Appellate Procedure 2(B)(c)(1).  Although it did not state as much before the Superior Court, on appeal the Board characterized its motion as a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b) of the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, which does not toll the appeal deadline.  The attorney responded by arguing that the appeal was timely under Maine Rule of Appellate Procedure 2(B)(c)(2) because the motion was a motion to alter or amend the judgment filed pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, which tolls the 21-day deadline.  The key issue, therefore, was the proper characterization of the motion.

The Law Court concluded that the motion sought relief under Rule 59(e).  It reasoned that the motion did not seek “to relieve the [moving party] from the judgment,” which it considers the province of Rule 60(b), but instead sought to “add” or “make changes” to the judgment, which it views as a request under Rule 59(e). As the Court wrote,

Because the motion requested that the single justice make changes to the sanctions order rather than requesting the Board be relieved from it, the motion is more properly characterized as a timely-filed motion to alter or amend a judgment [under Rule 59(e)].

Accordingly, the Court found that the appeal was timely pursuant to Rule 2(B)(c)(2).

This distinction does not intuitively seem necessary for resolution of the dispute in Brown.  A simpler answer appears to be suggested by the language of Rule 59(e), which not only allows motions “to alter or amend the judgment” but also states: “A motion for reconsideration of the judgment shall be treated as a motion to alter or amend the judgment.”  This broad language seems to cover any substantive requests concerning changes to or relief from the judgment filed within 14 days from entry of judgment.  In other words, Rule 59(e) encompasses any request for alteration, amendment, or reconsideration of the judgment.  Viewed in this light, Rule 60(b) simply identifies a limited subset of Rule 59(e) relief that remains available after the 14-day deadline under Rule 59(e) has run.  In Geary v. Stanley, the Court seemed to take a similar view when it observed that newly discovered evidence can give rise to a motion for reconsideration, even though that is also a basis for relief under Rule 60(b).  So construed, the Court could have resolved this issue simply by noting that the request sought a change to or relief from the judgment and was timely filed under Rule 59(e), and thus tolled the appeal deadline.

The distinction between the types of relief afforded by Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) poses a potential hazard for practitioners.  Attorneys now need to think carefully about whether the motion seeks to “add” to or “change” the judgment, or whether it instead seeks “relief” from a judgment.  This line may not always be clear.  Of course, it will help if—as parties are required to do under Rule of Civil Procedure 7(b)(1)—the motion cites the rule for the relief it seeks.  Regardless, parties must pay close attention to the pitfalls presented by the appeal deadline, including the nature of any post-judgment motions.