Rule 60 Relief Denied in Nashville, Tennessee Child-Support Case: State ex rel. Hockett v. Joy

FactsSixteen years after Child’s birth, the State, acting on behalf of Mother, petitioned to establish parentage and set child support. After a trial, child support was awarded retroactively to Child’s birth for a total obligation of $124,436.50. Father was ordered to pay $500 a month until the judgment was satisfied—a payment schedule of over 20 years.

The trial court’s order was mailed to Father’s attorney. Shortly after receiving the order, Father’s attorney fell and fractured his hip, which required him to be hospitalized for several weeks. Approximately 45 days after sustaining the injury, Father’s attorney died.

Tennessee Rule 60

Over 30 days after Father’s attorney’s injury, his personal effects were delivered to his paralegal. This included the trial court’s order. The paralegal immediately notified one of the attorney’s colleagues but, by this time, the 30-day deadline for appealing the order had passed. The colleague attempted to protect Father’s interests by petitioning for rehearing alleging that the trial court incorrectly calculated the retroactive child support amount.

The trial court denied the petition for rehearing, stating that Father should have appealed the order rather than requesting a rehearing after the expiration of the time to appeal.

Father then filed a Rule 60 motion to set aside the order. Father later amended the Rule 60 motion to assert—for the first time—that the circumstances surrounding his attorney’s untimely death constituted good cause for granting relief from the judgment.

The trial court denied the motion. Father appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Father argued he was prevented from filing a timely appeal because his attorney’s injury, hospitalization, and death delayed his receipt of the order.

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02 allows a party to obtain relief from a final order on the grounds of:

  1. mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
  2. fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;
  3. the judgment is void;
  4. the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged; or
  5. any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.

Relief under Rule 60.02 is an exceptional remedy designed to strike a proper balance between the competing principles of finality and justice. Rule 60.02 motions must be filed within a reasonable time.

Father sought relief under Rule 60.02(1) and (5).

Rule 60.02(1): mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. Grounds for relief asserted under Rule 60.02(1) must have occurred at or before the entry of the final judgment and must have resulted in the judgment’s entry. The Court found that was not the case here:

The [] order did not result from any “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect” caused by [Father’s attorney’s] injury and death because his injury and death occurred subsequent to the entry of the [] order. Therefore, Father’s failure to timely appeal the [] order as a result of [his attorney’s] injury and death does not constitute grounds for relief under Rule 60.02(1).

Rule 60.02(5): any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment. A party may not have relief under Rule 60.02(5) for his or her free, calculated, and deliberate choices. A party may have relief under this subpart only in the most compelling, unique, exceptional, and extraordinary circumstances.

The Court found Father’s motion was not filed within a reasonable time:

The record in this case presents a clear sequence of events. After realizing that the 30-day time period to appeal the [] order had already expired by the time the order was discovered amongst [Father’s attorney’s] personal effects, Father’s counsel attempted to preserve his rights by filing a petition for rehearing [2 ½ months later]. In his petition, Father included no argument that [his attorney’s] injury and death contributed to or caused him to miss the appeal deadline, nor did Father amend the petition at any time to include such argument. During the [] hearing on his petition, Father made no argument that [his attorney’s] injury and death contributed to his missing the deadline to appeal. Moreover, Father failed to raise the issue in his [initial] Rule 60.02 motion . . . . Father asserted the argument for the first time in his amended Rule 60.02 motion . . . .

Although reasonable minds may disagree about whether Father filed his amended Rule 60.02 motion within a reasonable time, that type of disagreement is at the core of a discretionary decision. Thus, even if the facts of this case constituted extraordinary circumstances or an extreme hardship, a trier of fact could reasonably conclude that Father’s delay in asserting the argument was too great to meet the requirements of Rule 60.02. We, therefore, conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Father’s request for relief pursuant to Rule 60.02(5).

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

State ex rel. Hockett v. Joy (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, October 31, 2019).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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