In Fogarty v. Ciao Bella, the Court of Appeals weighed the four factors contained in Rule 60.02 and found that the district court had abused its discretion by not granting the appellant’s motion to reopen the judgment.
Minn. R. Civ. P. 5.04(a) was amended in July of 2013 to require that all non-family civil lawsuits be filed with the district court within one year of commencement, or they are deemed to be dismissed with prejudice. In this case, Ms. Shannon Fogarty initiated a lawsuit against Ciao Bella, but failed to file the Summons and Complaint with the court within the year. Ms. Fogarty’s attorney claimed that he was not aware of the amendment to the rule. In January 2015, the district court dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, one day after the one-year deadline had passed.
Ms. Fogarty then filed a motion to vacate the judgment based on Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02, which allows a district court to vacate a judgment for “[m]istake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect,” or for “[a]ny other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.” The Court notes that it must look at four factors to determine whether to vacate the judgment under Rule 60.02: whether the party seeking to vacate the judgment (1) has a reasonable claim on the merits; (2) has a reasonable excuse for neglect; (3) acted diligently after receiving notice of entry of judgment; (4) that the opposing party will not be prejudiced.
The district court weighed factors (1) and (4) in favor of Ms. Fogarty, but found that factors (2) and (3) weighed against her. On appeal, neither party disputed the district court’s determination on factors (1) and (4) and, as such, the appellate court considered only factors (2) and (3).
For factor (2), whether Ms. Fogarty had reasonable excuse for her neglect, the district court found that not knowing about the rule change was not a reasonable excuse for her attorney; as an attorney, he was responsible for staying apprised of any rule changes, and pleading ignorance was no excuse.
On appeal, however, the appellate court found that the district court had improperly focused on whether Ms. Fogarty’s attorney had a reasonable excuse for neglect. Rather, the appellate opinion notes that courts prefer not to punish ‘innocent’ parties who have potentially legitimate claims, for the mistakes of their attorneys. The Court notes that there was no evidence that Ms. Fogarty was involved in the procedural aspects of her case and, therefore, weigh the second factor in favor of granting Ms. Fogarty’s requested relief.
As for the third factor, whether the party seeking relief acted diligently after receiving notice of entry of judgment, the district court found that Ms. Fogarty failed to act diligently because she had filed her motion to vacate the judgment six months after her case had been deemed dismissed.
The appellate court, however, finds that the appropriate date to measure by was not the expiration of the one-year time limit, but rather the date on which the judgment was entered. Because Ms. Fogarty filed her motion soon after the judgment was entered, the Court finds that factor three also weighs in favor of Ms. Fogarty.
Because all four factors weighed in favor of granting Ms. Fogarty’s requested relief, the Court reversed the district court’s ruling.
This case is a good reminder of the new rule that civil cases, including personal injury cases, must be filed within one year of the case being initiated (service of the complaint). This case shows that, under certain circumstances, a plaintiff will be allowed to continue their case even if they do not file within one year. The best practice, however, would always be to make sure cases are filed within the one-year time frame.