Federal Habeas Corpus: Understanding Post-Judgment Motions

There are several motions you can file after the denial of your federal habeas corpus case, and they all have their own rules. Here, we will go over two of the most common post-judgment motions filed in federal habeas cases: Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. While both will reopen your habeas case, the method for invoking each remedy is quite different.

Before we begin, note that these two civil remedies apply to all federal civil cases, and not just habeas cases. Though the facts in those other civil cases may be different from a typical habeas case, the same legal rules apply to motions filed in habeas cases. It`s a good idea to expand your research to those other civil cases.

What is a Rule 59(e) Motion?

While there`s no such thing as a “motion for reconsideration” under the civil rules or in habeas corpus cases, motions filed under Rule 59(e) have been construed as motions for reconsideration. The actual title of Rule 59(e) is “Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment,” which is exactly what the court would be doing if it were to grant your motion.

The full text of Rule 59(e) is merely this: “A motion to alter or amend a judgment must be filed no later than 28 days after entry of judgment.” (This was changed from 14 days to 28 days on Dec. 1, 2009.) Any Rule 59(e) motion filed after 28 days would be converted to a Rule 60(b) motion.

Without much more to go on, courts have had to define the contours of this remedy themselves. The Supreme Court has said that Rule 59(e) makes habeas proceedings “more efficient” because it “enables a district court to reverse a mistaken judgment, and so make an appeal altogether unnecessary.” Banister v. Davis, 140 S. Ct. 1698 (2020).

This provides a helpful hint as to what your Rule 59(e) motion should contain in order to be successful: Convincing the district court that there were errors important enough that the judgment would be reversed on appeal and sent back to the district court for correction.

The courts have established four grounds for a Rule 59(e) motion:

(1) “manifest errors of law or fact”,

(2) “newly discovered or possibly unavailable evidence”,

(3) “manifest injustice”, or

(4) “an intervening change in controlling law.”

One thing is clear, though, a Rule 59(e) motion is not the chance to ask the court to change its mind because you disagree with its decision. That`s what an appeal is for. It`s also not a time to “raise arguments which could, and should, have been made before the trial court entered judgment.” Williams v. Norris, 461 F.3d 999, 1004 (8th Cir. 2006).

Note that these four grounds are regarding errors that occurred during your habeas case, not your criminal case. You cannot use a civil motion to attack the proceedings that happened in your criminal case.

Taking an Appeal After a Rule 59(e) Motion is Filed

Under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a), you have a limited time from the date of entry of the judgment denying your habeas case to file a notice of appeal in the district court (30 days for state prisoners and 60 days for federal). A timely-filed Rule 59(e) motion stops the this clock until the motion is decided. Once the motion is decided, the appeal clock restarts. That`s if you file your motion within 28 days of the date of the judgment. Banister, supra.

However, some courts have held that even a late-filed Rule 59(e) motion would stop the appeal clock, if the government doesn`t oppose the late filing. These courts have concluded that the 28-days limit under Rule 59(e) is an “affirmative defense” that the government must raise or it`s waived, making the motion timely-filed, and this restarts the appeal clock. See, e.g., Zirker v. United States, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75943 (M.D. Tenn. May 18, 2017), but see Green v. DEA, 606 F.3d 1296 (5th Cir. 2010) (FRAP 4(a)`s appeal clock is jurisdictional and a late Rule 59(e) motion cannot restart the clock).

If you file a notice of appeal and then file a timely Rule 59(e) motion, it suspends that notice of appeal until your motion is decided. Your notice of appeal will kick back in once the Rule 59(e) motion is decided. You don`t have to do anything, but your notice of appeal will only be good to challenge your habeas judgment, not the decision on the Rule 59(e) motion. In order to appeal both, you need to file a new notice of appeal or amend the one you already filed to include the Rule 59(e) decision. Carrascosa v. McGuire, 520 F.3d 249 (3d Cir. 2003).

What is a Rule 60(b) Motion?

While courts generally treat Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) motions similarly, they are not the same. Titled “Relief from Judgment and Order,” Rule 60(b) provides a much more expanded remedy than Rule 59(e). It allows the court to reopen its final judgment in a civil case and revisit its decision, well after the 28-day limit under Rule 59(e).

The main difference with Rule 60(b) is that it`s used to correct “mistakes attributable to special circumstances,” where Rule 59(e) is for correcting errors made by the district court in order to avoid an appeal. Rule 59(e) makes the judgment non-final so it`s no big deal if the court amends a judgment that`s non-final. But changing a final judgment using Rule 60(b) is a lot more difficult. Courts are reluctant to reopen final judgments, especially habeas judgments.

Rule 60(b) is Not Always a Successive Habeas Petition

Until the Supreme Court addressed the issue in Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005), most courts had held that every Rule 60(b) motion filed to reopen a habeas judgment was really a second or successive habeas petition that required permission from the court of appeals before the district court could hear it. But Gonzalez held that while a Rule 60(b) could indeed be a successive petition in some instances, not every Rule 60(b) motion was.

The Court clarified when a Rule 60(b) motion would not be successive:

“When a Rule 60(b) attacks, not the substance of the federal court`s resolution of a claim on the merits, but some defect in the integrity of the federal habeas proceedings.”

A defect in the integrity of the proceedings does not mean how the habeas court reached its decision. Though you might disagree with the judge`s ruling on your claims, the court will tell you that`s what an appeal is for, not Rule 60(b).

The Court gave some examples in Gonzalez of proper Rule 60(b) motions, such as challenging where the district court entered a default judgment when it legally should not have, or if the court didn`t have jurisdiction to enter the judgment in a habeas case. Rule 60(b) would allow for relief from those types of faulty judgments. Other courts have held that a challenge to the court`s dismissal of a habeas case as time-barred would be a proper Rule 60(b) motion. Lugo v. Sec`y Dept. of Corr., 750 F.3d 1198 (11th Cir. 2014).

Taking an Appeal After a Rule 60(b) Motion

Unlike a Rule 59(e) motion, a Rule 60(b) motion filed more than 28 days after entry of the judgment does not stop and reset the appeal clock. If you file your motion while your habeas appeal is pending in the court of appeals, it doesn`t negatively impact the appeal. The court of appeals still retains jurisdiction over the appeal, and the district court has the authority to hear your Rule 60(b) motion. But this wasn`t always the case, so be mindful of older cases when doing your research that say a court loses jurisdiction if you file a Rule 60(b) motion while the case is on appeal.

Every circuit has a different way of handling Rule 60(b) motions while a habeas case is on appeal. Some require you to ask the court of appeals to remand the case if the district court tells you it is inclined to decide the motion in your favor. Other circuits say it`s the district court who must contact the court of appeals to see what they`re inclined to do. Be sure to check your local circuit rules (the rules of the court of appeals, not the district court rules) to make sure you follow the correct procedure.

For example, the Fifth Circuit has given this guidance:

This Court has provided extremely clear guidance to litigants on how to proceed with a Rule 60(b) motion after a notice of appeal has been filed. Although an effective notice of appeal strips district courts of jurisdiction to grant a Rule 60(b) motion, it does not prevent litigants from filing them in the district court while an appeal is pending. Instead, the district court retains jurisdiction to consider and deny Rule 60(b) motions, and if it indicates that it will grant the motion, the appellant may then make a motion in the Court of Appeals for a remand of the case in order that the district court may grant such a motion. Dominguez v. Gulf Coast Marine & Assocs, 607 F.3d 1066 (5th Cir. 2010).

Time Limits on Filing a Rule 60(b) Motion

Of the six grounds listed in Rule 60(b) for relief from a judgment, the first three (mistake, new evidence, and fraud on the court) have a one-year time limit from the date of the judgment you`re challenging. The rest of the grounds must be filed “within a reasonable time.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(c). Courts have said that a “reasonable time” is within a year of the judgment, but nothing in Rule 60 says that one year is considered a reasonable time. In fact, many courts have considered Rule 60(b) motions filed beyond one-year. See, e.g., Cox v. Horn, 757 F.3d 113 (3d Cir. 2014).

Appealing the Rule 60(b) Decision

The denial of a Rule 60(b) motion can be appealed separately from the underlying judgment it is challenging (i.e., apart from your habeas case), or it can be combined with your habeas appeal if it`s still pending. Regardless of how you take an appeal with a Rule 60(b) denial, you will need a certificate of appealability (COA) to do so. See Buck v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 759 (2017).

The COA standard for a Rule 60(b) motion, however, is different from that for a habeas appeal. The showing needed for a COA to appeal a Rule 60(b) denial is that “the district court abused its discretion by denying the Rule 60(b) motion.” This is true because the Rule 60(b) motion “does not bring up the underlying judgment for review” on appeal. Lindsey v. Thigpen, 875 F.2d 1509 (11th Cir. 1989). In reality, though, courts routinely apply the same COA standard to Rule 60(b) as they do for habeas cases, requiring the showing of the denial of a constitutional right in the underlying claims. Be ready to discuss the strength of your habeas claims in support of a COA.

IN CONCLUSION, motions under Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) can be a valid way to reopen the avenue for relief after a habeas case is denied. However, the rules are rather narrow and having a firm grasp on the procedures for doing so will go a long way in obtaining habeas corpus relief.

Dale Chappell has hundreds of published articles on federal habeas corpus and is the author of the Insider`s Guide series of post-conviction books, including Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners, and Habeas Corpus for Federal Prisoners. Follow his blog at www.ZenLawGuy.com and on Twitter: @zenlawguy.

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