Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers Union, Local No. 59 v. Superline Transp. Co., Inc.

Citation953 F.2d 17
Decision Date04 December 1991
Docket NumberNo. 91-1713,91-1713
PartiesTEAMSTERS, CHAUFFEURS, WAREHOUSEMEN AND HELPERS UNION, LOCAL NO. 59, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. SUPERLINE TRANSPORTATION COMPANY, INC., et al., Defendants, Appellees. . Heard
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)

William M. Straus, with whom Lang, Straus, Xifaras & Bullard, New Bedford, Mass., was on brief, for plaintiff, appellant.

Arthur P. Murphy, with whom David W. Healey and Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane, Quincy, Mass., were on brief, for defendants, appellees.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge, and POLLAK, * Senior District Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

It is said that coming events often cast their shadows before, cf., e.g., Cicero, De Divinatione, I, 118 ("It was ordained at the beginning of the world that certain signs should prefigure certain events."), and so it is in this appeal. A battle which started to go sour for the appellant two years ago ends today in full retreat.

I.

This case began with the filing of a verified complaint in November, 1988. The defendants answered in due course. On December 15, 1989, the defendants moved for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The motion went unopposed. On February 6, 1990, long after the time for responding to the Rule 56 motion had expired, Judge McNaught granted the motion. Judgment entered the same day. The appeal period ran and the court's file was closed.

On April 25, 1991, the plaintiffs attempted to resurrect the case from its own ashes. Invoking Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6), they sought to vacate the adverse judgment and to reopen the proceedings. The motion was accompanied neither by affidavits nor by "a memorandum of reasons, including citation of supporting authorities," as required by D.Mass.Loc.R. 7.1(a)(1). On May 8, the defendants filed an opposition. On May 20, Judge Skinner denied the plaintiffs' motion (Judge McNaught having retired), "[i]t not appearing that [either] plaintiff has a meritorious claim." This appeal followed.

II.

The appellant, the Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers Union, Local No. 59 (the Union), 1 is interested in reopening the case to prosecute counts 3 and 4 of the complaint (seeking recoupment of vacation pay allegedly owed to Union members). In the first instance, an inquiring court should assume the truth of fact-specific statements contained in a Rule 60(b)(6) motion. See, e.g., United States v. Baus, 834 F.2d 1114, 1121 (1st Cir.1987) (suggesting that, on a Rule 60(b)(6) motion, the facts should be taken as the moving party alleges, to see whether those facts, if proven, would warrant relief). A court need not, however, give credence to the movant's bald assertions, unsubstantiated conclusions, periphrastic circumlocutions, or hyperbolic rodomontade. Stripped in this fashion, the Rule 60(b)(6) motion in the case at bar avers:

1. When defendants' motion for summary judgment was filed, plaintiffs' counsel did not simultaneously receive a copy of it (although the motion papers contained a satisfactory certificate of service).

2. When judgment was entered on February 6, 1990, the clerk of court did not send notice to the plaintiffs.

3. By February 9, 1990, plaintiffs' counsel had learned of the summary judgment motion. He wrote to the clerk advising that he "ha[d] not received a copy of [the defendants' summary judgment motion]," and indicating that a response to the motion would be forthcoming.

4. On February 26, 1990, with defendants' assent, an opposition to the summary judgment motion was filed. As described, the opposition was a nullity; the plaintiffs did not move either to extend the time for opposing the defendants' Rule 56 initiative, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(b) (requiring court approval for retroactive enlargement of filing deadlines), or to set aside the February 6, 1990, judgment.

5. Unaware of the earlier entry of judgment, the plaintiffs attempted for over a year to negotiate a settlement of the underlying claims. They were unsuccessful.

6. On April 22, 1991, plaintiffs' counsel drafted and signed the Rule 60(b)(6) motion, which was docketed three days later.

In addition to what was stated therein, the motion papers were equally revealing for what they did not say. There was no mention, for example, of how, or when, the plaintiffs learned that the Rule 56(c) motion had been filed; why the judge was shunned when the plaintiffs sought to serve an opposition out of time; how, or when, the plaintiffs finally discovered that judgment had entered; what, if any, efforts the appellant made to monitor the docket and thereby protect its interests; etc. The motion did not reflect so much as a whisper of a hint of an intimation that, should the matter be restored to the docket, counts 3 and 4 (or any other claims contained in the complaint, for that matter) would likely prove to be winnable--much less an elucidation of the facts or reasoning upon which a conclusion of potential meritoriousness might plausibly rest.

III.

Motions brought under Civil Rule 60(b) are committed to the district court's discretion and denials thereof are reviewed only for an abuse of that discretion. 2 See Rodriguez-Antuna v. Chase Manhattan Bank Corp., 871 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir.1989); Ojeda-Toro v. Rivera-Mendez, 853 F.2d 25, 28 (1st Cir.1988). More specifically, the abuse-of-discretion standard applies in connection with appellate review of orders refusing to grant relief under Rule 60(b)(6). See, e.g., Mitchell v. Hobbs, 951 F.2d 417, 420 (1st Cir.1991); United States v. Parcel of Land, Etc. (Woburn City Athletic Club, Inc.), 928 F.2d 1, 5 (1st Cir.1991); United States v. Berenguer, 821 F.2d 19, 20 (1st Cir.1987). We discern no abuse on the record before us.

Rule 60(b) invested the federal courts, in certain carefully delimited situations, with the power to "vacate judgments whenever such action is appropriate to accomplish justice." Klapprott v. United States, 335 U.S. 601, 614-15, 69 S.Ct. 384, 390, 93 L.Ed. 266 (1949). The rule attempts to harness a blend of centrifugal and centripetal forces. On the one hand, the rule must be construed so as to recognize the importance of finality as applied to court judgments. On the other hand, the rule must be construed so as to recognize the desirability of deciding disputes on their merits. The need to harmonize these competing policies has led courts to pronounce themselves disinclined to disturb judgments under the aegis of Rule 60(b) unless the movant can demonstrate that certain criteria have been achieved. In general, these criteria include (1) timeliness, (2) the existence of exceptional circumstances justifying extraordinary relief, and (3) the absence of unfair prejudice to the opposing party. 3 See, e.g., Olle v. Henry & Wright Corp., 910 F.2d 357, 365 (6th Cir.1990); United States v. Boch Oldsmobile, Inc., 909 F.2d 657, 660-61 (1st Cir.1990); In re Pacific Far East Lines, Inc., 889 F.2d 242, 249 (9th Cir.1989).

There is, however, an additional sentry that guards the gateway to Rule 60(b) relief. Although we appear never to have said so unreservedly, it is the invariable rule, and thus, the rule in this circuit, that a litigant, as a precondition to relief under Rule 60(b), must give the trial court reason to believe that vacating the judgment will not be an empty exercise. See Boyd v. Bulala, 905 F.2d 764, 769 (4th Cir.1990) ("a threshold condition for granting the relief is that the movant demonstrate that granting th[e] relief will not in the end have been a futile gesture"); Lepkowski v. United States Dept. of Treasury, 804 F.2d 1310, 1314 (D.C.Cir.1986) ("motions for relief under Rule 60(b) are not to be granted unless the movant can demonstrate a meritorious claim or defense"); Compton v. Alton S.S. Co., 608 F.2d 96, 102 (4th Cir.1979) ("Courts require that a movant under Rule 60(b) assume the burden of showing a meritorious defense ... as a threshold condition to any relief whatsoever."); In re Stone, 588 F.2d 1316, 1319 (10th Cir.1978); Beshear v. Weinzapfel, 474 F.2d 127, 132 (7th Cir.1973); see also Woburn City Athletic Club, 928 F.2d at 5 ("In exercising its discretion under Rule 60(b), the district court must look, inter alia, to whether the party seeking relief has a potentially meritorious claim or defense."); Coon v. Grenier, 867 F.2d 73, 76 (1st Cir.1989) (presence or absence of meritorious defense must be considered in connection with motion to remove entry of default); Marshall v. Monroe & Sons, Inc., 615 F.2d 1156, 1160 (6th Cir.1980) (explicating precondition in respect to Rule 60(b)(1)).

This tenet is dispositive here. The Union, in its Rule 60(b)(6) motion, did not make any allusion to the viability of its underlying suit. Moreover, the defendants, in their written opposition to the motion, argued at some length that the Union's claims were doomed to fail. Despite this red alert, the Union never sought leave to file a rejoinder, see D.Mass.Loc.R. 7.1(a)(3) (in district court motion practice, reply briefs may be submitted "with leave of court"), or otherwise to controvert the defendants' point. 4 On this record, then, an essential precondition to Rule 60(b)(6) relief was unfulfilled.

The Union attempts to repair this defect by arguing before us that its case is, indeed, a potentially meritorious one. It urges that the very filing of a Rule 60(b)(6) motion is tantamount to a party's representation that a winnable claim or defense exists. But, this approach smacks of locking the barn door well after the horse has galloped into the sunset. At any rate, the approach is doubly flawed.

For one thing, while a movant, in order to set aside a judgment, need not establish that it possesses an ironclad claim or defense which will guarantee success at trial, it must at least establish that it possesses a potentially meritorious claim or defense which, if proven, will bring success in its wake. Such a showing requires more...

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