Tuesday, January 15, 2008, 6:20 PM

COA Reminds: Rule 60 Is Not Substitute For Appeal

Today, in Catawba Valley Bank v. Porter, the Court of Appeals (COA) delivered a harsh reminder: if a judgment is entered against your client based on an error of law, you must appeal the erroneous judgment rather than seek relief pursuant to Rule 60; if you seek Rule 60 relief rather than appealing, you will bound by the erroneous judgment, even if the trial court agrees with you.

Today's case presented a familiar pattern. After prevailing on their UTPA claim, the claimants moved for attorney fees under G.S. 75-16.1. The motion was denied, and a judgment was entered without a fee award, apparently because the trial court believed that attorney fees can't be awarded under the UTPA absent evidence of a failed attempt to settle the case. Rather than appealing the judgment (the denial of fees), claimants filed a Rule 60 motion asking the trial court to reconsider its ruling on the ground that the UTPA doesn't require evidence of a failed attempt to settle. The trial court agreed that it had applied the wrong legal standard and awarded fees. The party saddled with the fee award appealed.

The COA vacated the fee award. The COA reiterated that Rule 60(b)(6) doesn't cover relief from errors of law; the avenues for relief from errors of law are a notice of appeal or a Rule 59 motion in the trial court (the latter of which, of course, must be filed within 10 days of judgment). "Rule 60 is an improper mechanism for obtaining review of alleged legal error." Accordingly, the UTPA claimants were bound by the trial court's original judgment refusing to award attorney fees, which they hadn't appealed.

The COA stressed that a trial court does have inherent authority to correct its own errors, but in this case the trial court acted on a Rule 60 motion, not on its own initiative pursuant to its inherent authority.

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