Advocate's Journal

Fourth Circuit expands the scope of Rule 60(a), FRCP

By Bobby Stepp

Rule 60(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “[t]he court may correct a clerical mistake or a mistake arising from oversight whenever one is found in a judgment, order, or other part of the record.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(a). In Sartin v. McNair Law Firm, P.A., 756 F.3d 259 (4th Cir. 2014), a case in which Sowell Gray represented the prevailing party, the Fourth Circuit construed the scope of Rule 60(a) and concluded that the Rule’s scope is not confined to correcting typographical and other clerical errors, but also extends to “unintended ambiguit[ies] that obfuscate[] the court’s original intent.” Id. at 266.

Sartin was a procedurally complex legal malpractice action that arose from an underlying products liability case. The South Carolina District Court in the underlying case revisited two sanctions orders it had entered against “the Plaintiffs” more than a year earlier. In its original order granting sanctions, the court found “‘sanctions to be appropriate with what it consider[ed] to be egregious discovery abuse by Plaintiffs,’” and ordered “Plaintiffs” to pay defendants’ costs, expenses and attorneys’ fees, which were established in excess of $1 million.

After the parties settled the products case, the plaintiffs’ former attorney, Sartin, commenced an action against his former clients to recover his attorneys’ fees. The clients counterclaimed, seeking to hold Sartin responsible for the sanctions and the $2 million in attorneys’ fees they paid to their new counsel. Sartin objected, contending that the sanctions were entered against his former clients—i.e., “the Plaintiffs,” and not him individually. Thereafter, Sartin’s clients filed a motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(a) seeking to have the district court clarify its intent in its sanctions rulings. In response to that motion, the district court ruled that “[t]he entire monetary sanction was for Sartin’s discovery abuses,” and that “[i]t was the court’s intent that Sartin, individually, be assessed monetary sanctions based upon his conduct during the course of his representation.” Id. at 263. Sartin hired counsel (“Law Firm”) to appeal the district court’s order. The Law Firm filed the appeal two days late, and the district court refused to approve the late filing of the appeal. Sartin then sued the Law Firm for malpractice. Id. at 263. The district court granted summary Judgment to the Law Firm on the ground that Sartin suffered no injury as a result of the alleged malpractice because “‘the Fourth Circuit would not have reversed [the district court’s Rule 60(a)] Clarification Order’ entered in the earlier case.” Id. at 264.

On appeal, Sartin contended that Rule 60(a) “has a ‘limited application’ that only allows courts ‘to clarify de minimis clerical mistakes such as typographical errors, or to fill in gaps in a judgment,’ and no clerical mistake was involved in the entry of the sanctions orders.” Id. Law Firm contended that Rule 60(a) “allows a court to clarify its earlier order to conform with its intent at the time it issued the order.” Id. at 265. Affirming the district court, the Fourth Circuit found that while it is true that Rule 60(a) “allows . . . courts to perform mechanical adjustments to judgments, such as correcting transcription errors and miscalculations[,]” the Rule “is not confined to just fixing typographical and other clerical errors.” Id. Instead,

[t]he Rule’s text also authorizes a court to correct ‘a mistake arising from oversight or omission.’ Such a mistake occurs when there is an inconsistency between the text of an order or judgment and the district court’s intent when it entered the order or judgment. A ‘mistake arising from oversight or omission’ also includes an unintended ambiguity that obfuscates the court’s original intent. . . .

In sum, the scope of a court’s authority under Rule 60(a) to make corrections to an order or judgment is circumscribed by the court’s intent when it issued the order or judgment.

Id. at 266 (internal citations omitted).

The Fourth Circuit found further that a court’s original intent “‘may be ascertained through consideration of contemporaneous documents, such as a memorandum opinion or transcript, and by the presiding judge’s own subsequent statements regarding his intent.’” Id. (quoting Rhodes v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 548 Fed. Appx. 857, 860 (4th Cir. 2013) (per curiam)). The court found that in this case, the district court’s intent is found not only in its own statement about its intent, but also in the fact that “the conduct that drew the [district] court’s ire”—discovery abuse—“was not the type of conduct in which [counsel’s] clients would typically participate.” Sartin, 756 F.3d at 266. Finally, the court concluded that the fact that the district court’s clarification order related to litigation that was dismissed over a year ago was of no consequence with respect to the district court’s jurisdiction over the matter because as “Sartin properly concedes . . . ‘Rule 60(a) . . . has no time limit.’” Id. at 268 (citing cases).