April 24, 2017

A Voidable Error Will Not Satisfy Tr. R. 60(B)(6) Requirements for Relief from Judgment

Category: Civil Procedure, Indianapolis Law Club, Settlements & Decisions | Author: | Share:

In Koonce v. Finney, wife and military husband divorced in 1998 after 13 years of marriage. The dissolution decree required the husband to pay wife 50% of his military retirement pay. He retired from the military in 2005 and starting paying wife $325 per month. In 2014, wife learns that he should have been paying a lot more and brings a civil action alleging fraud “over the course of nearly a decade, during which [Husband] deprived her of tens-of-thousands of dollars in military retired pay for which she was entitled.”

Husband files motions to clarify the original dissolution order regarding the military pension and for relief from judgment under Tr. R. 60(B)(6) alleging the portion of the dissolution decree dividing his military pension was void. The trial court denied the motion and husband appealed.

To prevail under Rule 60(B)(6), the party must demonstrate the prior judgment was void, and not merely voidable. A decision that is void “has no legal effect at any time and cannot be confirmed or ratified by subsequent action or inaction” and “is subject to a collateral attack.” A decision which is voidable “has legal effect until such time as challenged in the appropriate manner and can be ratified or confirmed by subsequent action or inaction” and “may only be attacked through a direct appeal.”

In R.L. Turner Corp. v. Town of Brownsburg, the Court provided a tutorial in jurisdiction:

To act in a given case, a trial court must possess both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction exists when the Indiana Constitution or a statute grants the court the power to hear and decide cases of the general class to which any particular proceeding belongs. Personal jurisdiction exists when a defendant both has sufficient minimum contacts within the state to justify a court subjecting the defendant to its control, and has received proper notice of a suit against him in that court. [963 N.E.2d 453, 457 (Ind. 2012)].

The court noted the well-established rule that “[r]elief from a ‘void judgment’ is available when the trial court lacked either personal or subject matter jurisdiction.” Husband argued that a judgment may be void in additional circumstances as well, citing cases where the trial court had authority at one point, but that authority expired after a certain time limit. The Court of Appeals analyzed these cases, finding:

The authority vested or rescinded in each of these cases was apparent on the face of the complaint, without the court needing to address the merits of any underlying factual issue or legal argument in the case. The trial court simply did not have statutory authority to act under the circumstances that existed. In contrast, it is undisputed the Dissolution Court here had authority to adjudicate the property division requested by the parties as part of its Dissolution Order.

Whether Husband’s military pay is “property” under Indiana Code §31-9-2-98(3) is subject to interpretation…. However, none of the parties’ current arguments regarding Husband’s military pay could deny the Dissolution Court of its authority to adjudicate the property division under Indiana Code Section 31-15-7-4 at the time the decree was entered.

We decline Husband’s invitation to examine the merits of his underlying legal argument in order to determine whether the Dissolution Court had authority to render any judgment at all. …That’s because we would have to consider an appeal’s merits in every case. Husband’s opportunity to contest the terms of the Dissolution Decree involving his military pension passed almost twenty years ago. He cannot now attempt to revive this waiver by filing a Rule 60(B)(6) motion.

Regarding the motion for clarification, the Court stated:

The Indiana Trial Rules do not provide for a motion for clarification; however, we have held, “it would elevate form over substance to treat a ‘motion to clarify’ as anything other than a motion to correct error.” Although the Civil Court denied Husband’s motion to clarify, it examined the process DFAS used to determine Wife’s share of Husband’s pension, and in doing so, the Civil Court explained why Wife was receiving the legally appropriate amount of Husband’s pension. Because the Dissolution Court’s Divorce Decree was not void, Husband is not entitled to relief from the judgment under Rule 60(B)(6). The Civil Court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Husband’s motion to clarify.

Lessons:

  1. If an argument is addressed to the merits of a claim as opposed to the authority of a court to decide the issue, it will be voidable, not void, and may not be attacked by a Rule 60(B)(6) motion.
  2. A motion to clarify may be treated as a motion to correct an error. In light of that risk, pay attention to the timeliness of your notice of appeal.

Read the full March 2017 Law Club Handout or listen to the recording here.