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Boughner v. Secretary of Health

filed: March 8, 1978.


APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil Nos. 74-1171, 74-1090, 74-315, 74-1145, 75-97 and 75-59)

Author: Fisher

Before: GIBBONS and VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judges and FISHER, District Judge*fn*


FISHER, District Judge

These consolidated appeals are from the denial by the trial court of a motion to vacate a summary judgment entered, in each case, in favor of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, appellee. The effect of the summary judgments was to deny the appellants' claims for benefits under the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.

All six appellants were represented by Peter Krehel, Esquire, who instituted the actions in the district court. In each case the Secretary filed a motion for Summary Judgment. These motions were unopposed and granted pursuant to Local Rule 301.01(e),*fn1 of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Present counsel for appellants was then substituted and in each case moved to vacate the summary judgments pursuant to F.R.Civ.P. 60. The appellants relied specifically on sections 60(b)(1) and 60(b)(6), citing as the basis for the motion: (1) Krehel's intense involvement in his campaign for the office of Common Pleas Judge of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania;*fn2 (2) the loss of his secretary who allegedly was responsible for his calendar; and (3) Krehel's large backload of cases.*fn3 Their reasons were insufficient in the judgment of the district court. However, a survey was conducted to determine how many other summary judgment motions Krehel had permitted to go unopposed. The results of the survey were astounding. Krehel had failed to file a responsive pleading in a total of 52 H.E.W. cases. This egregious conduct amounted to nothing short of leaving his clients unrepresented.*fn4

The general purpose of Rule 60, which provides for relief from judgments for various reasons, is to strike a proper balance between the conflicting principles that litigation must be brought to an end and that justice must be done. Wright and Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 2851. Generally, a motion brought pursuant to Rule 60 is addressed to the sound discretion of the Court and is reviewable on appeal only for abuse of discretion. Virgin Islands National Bank v. Tyson, 506 F.2d 802, 804 (3d Cir. 1974). However, the District Court has no discretion in considering motions predicated on the voidness of the original judgment, Jordon v. Gilligan, 500 F.2d 701, 704 (6th Cir. 1974), fraud, or other extraordinary circumstances such as the unconstitutionality of the statute, upon which the judgment was based. See Neely v. United States, 546 F.2d 1059, 1065-66 (3d Cir. 1976). This Court has also cautioned that relief from a judgment under Rule 60 should be granted only in exceptional circumstances. FDIC v. Alker, 234 F.2d 113, 117 (3d Cir. 1956); 30 F.R.D. 527 (E.D.Pa. 1962), aff'd. 316 F.2d 236 (3d Cir. 1963), cert. denied, 375 U.S. 880, 84 S. Ct. 150, 11 L. Ed. 2d 111 (1963).

A party may be entitled to relief from a judgment under Rule 60(b)(1) on a showing of "mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect." Situations in which relief has been granted pursuant to Rule 60(b)(1) include: Where the defendant's attorney did not know that the defense of forgery was available when he agreed to a consent judgment against his client in an action on a written guaranty note;*fn5 where a defendant corporation had no actual notice that a suit had been entered against it;*fn6 and where an attorney confused two similar cases involving his client.*fn7

The record before us does not show circumstances indicating any mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect and therefore we do not find Rule 60(b)(1) applicable. We reverse, however, on the basis that the motion to vacate should have been granted under Rule 60(b)(6). The conduct of Krehel indicates neglect so gross that it is inexcusable. The reasons advanced for his failure to file opposing documents in a timely fashion are unacceptable.

In making this determination we are aware that Rule 60(b)(6), which permits the vacating of a judgment "for any other reason justifying relief,"*fn8 provides an extraordinary remedy and may be invoked only upon a showing of exceptional circumstances. Ackermann v. United States, 340 U.S. 193, 202, 95 L. Ed. 207, 71 S. Ct. 209 (1950); Vecchione v. Wohlgemuth, 558 F.2d 150, 159 (3d Cir. 1977). The party seeking relief has the burden of showing that absent such relief, an "extreme" and "unexpected" hardship will result. United States v. Swift, 286 U.S. 106, 119, 76 L. Ed. 999, 52 S. Ct. 460 (1932); Mayberry v. Maroney, 558 F.2d 1159, 1163 (3d Cir. 1977).*fn8

The appellee urges that generally a party is deemed to be bound by the acts of his attorney. Link v. Wabash Railroad Co., 370 U.S. 626, 8 L. Ed. 2d 734, 82 S. Ct. 1386 (1962). In Link, the Supreme Court held that the dismissal of an action because of the failure of an attorney to attend a pretrial conference did not abuse the discretion vested in the trial judge by F.R.Civ.P. 41(b). The Court noted, in discussing its decision, that such a dismissal did not impose an unjust penalty on the attorney's client because a party who freely selects an attorney cannot avoid the consequences of the acts or omissions of that attorney. Id. at 633-34 citing Smith v. Ayer, 101 U.S. 320, 326, 25 L. Ed. 955 (1879).

However, in Link, supra, the Court determined only that dismissal was proper under Rule 41(b). In doing so, and while declaring that a party was deemed bound by its attorney's acts, the Court expressly indicated that the aggrieved party never availed himself of a corrective remedy such as the "escape hatch provided by Rule 60(b)." Id. at 632. The Court also refused to consider whether it would have been an abuse of discretion to deny a Rule 60(b) motion, since none had been filed. Id. at 635-36.

We hold, therefore, that in the factual setting here, which warrants relief under Rule 60(b)(6), appellants are not bound by the acts of their attorney for the purposes of the rule.*fn9

In reaching our decision that the circumstances here are sufficiently exceptional and extraordinary so as to mandate relief pursuant to Rule 60(b)(6), we are not unmindful of the need for judicial eagerness to expedite cases, to fully utilize the court's time, to reduce overcrowded calendars and to establish finality of judgments. However, these ...

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