Navigating Relief from the Denial of Federal Habeas Relief: Rule 60(b)(1) versus Rule 60(b)(6)

In the realm of civil procedure, seeking relief from a judgment denying a § 2255 or § 2254 petitionis not a straightforward process. Litigants must navigate the intricacies of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, most commonly Rule 60(b), to reopen their habeas case. Let’s delve into the key distinctions between two provisions of Rule 60(b) and their applicability in addressing errors in the application of the law.

Rule 60(b)(1): Correcting Mistakes in the Application of the Law

Rule 60(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure offers the opportunity to seek relief from civil judgments based on “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.” Notably, this provision encompasses errors that arise from the application of the law during the proceedings or in the judgment itself. Courts have consistently interpreted Rule 60(b)(1) broadly, recognizing its capacity to remedy mistakes of both factual and legal nature.

In Parks v. U. S. Life & Credit Corp., 677 F.2d 838 (11th Cir. 1982), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the applicability of Rule 60(b)(1) in rectifying legal errors. The court emphasized the rule’s flexibility and its capacity to address erroneous applications of the law during the litigation process. This ruling set an essential precedent and provided legal practitioners with a clear path to seek relief for mistakes that may have influenced the outcome of a civil case.

Rule 60(b)(6): The Extraordinary Circumstance Standard

Rule 60(b)(6) serves as a catch-all provision, granting courts the discretion to grant relief for “any other reason that justifies relief.” Unlike Rule 60(b)(1), which centers on specific grounds for relief, Rule 60(b)(6) sets a higher threshold for eligibility. Courts invoke this rule sparingly, requiring petitioners to demonstrate truly extraordinary circumstances that would warrant reopening a case.

While Rule 60(b)(6) offers flexibility, it is essential to understand its limits. One common misconception is that a mere change in decisional law suffices as an extraordinary circumstance. However, this notion was debunked by the Eleventh Circuit in Arthur v. Thomas, 739 F.3d 611 (11th Cir. 2014), where the court clarified that a change in decisional law, by itself, does not meet the rigorous requirements of Rule 60(b)(6). To secure relief under this rule, petitioners must present additional compelling factors beyond the mere change in law.

Choosing the Right Path: Rule 60(b)(1) vs. Rule 60(b)(6)

One major drawback for Rule 60(b)(1) is the one-year time limit to file such a motion, while Rule 60(b)(6) doesn’t have a time limit, per se. Courts have granted relief in Rule 60(b)(6) motions, though rarely, for motions filed several years after the habeas judgment denying relief. The clock for Rule 60(b)(1) starts when the district court enters its judgment denying relief, and not when the appeal is finished.

For litigants seeking to correct errors in the application of the law, Rule 60(b)(1) remains the more appropriate avenue. The rule’s broad scope, as validated in Parks v. U.S. Life & Credit Corp., provides an effective means to address legal mistakes during trial or in the judgment. On the other hand, Rule 60(b)(6) is a limited remedy and should only be invoked in extraordinary circumstances where additional compelling factors exist alongside a change in decisional law.

One major drawback for Rule 60(b)(1) is the one-year time limit to file such a motion While Rule 60(b)(6) doesn’t have a time limit, per se, courts tend to stick to the one-year limit – though courts have granted relief in Rule 60(b) motions filed several years after the judgment denying habeas relief.


I touch on Rule 60(b) relief in my books, Insider’s Guide: Habeas Corpus for Federal Prisoners and Insider’s Guide: Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners, but navigating the realm of Rule 60(b) relief requires a comprehensive understanding of the specific grounds provided under each subsection. In cases involving mistakes in the application of the law, Rule 60(b)(1) should be the primary focus, given its proven efficacy in remedying legal errors. Rule 60(b)(6), while flexible, demands exceptional circumstances beyond mere changes in decisional law. Litigants must carefully assess the facts of their case to determine the most appropriate path for seeking relief from judgments.

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