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Sue L. Robinson: “Extraordinary Circumstances” Warrant Rule 60(b) Relief from Judgment

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Obtaining relief from judgment under Rule 60(b) is normally a difficult exercise, as courts are rightfully reluctant to disturb their own findings. Vacating a judgment under Rule 60(b)(6)’s catch-all provision, which authorizes courts to do so for “any other reason that justifies relief,” is even harder. Given the rarity of this type of relief, litigators should take notice of a recent decision by District Judge Sue L. Robinson.

The Court emphasized that “exceptional circumstances” existed to warrant reinstating an earlier decision that granted summary judgment on a contract claim in plaintiff’s favor. Specifically, the Court noted how the parties had entered into a patent settlement agreement and stipulated that the Court would retain jurisdiction over its enforcement. When defendant later requested a re-examination before the PTO, an act prohibited by the settlement agreement, plaintiff successfully secured a summary judgment establishing defendant’s breach.

Defendant then sought to vacate the summary judgment. According to defendant, the Court never entered the original stipulation, and therefore never acquired jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement. Despite defendant’s unequivocal intent to confer jurisdiction in the stipulation, the Court noted that Third Circuit precedent required that it vacate the summary judgment decision.

Defendant later agreed that, based on intervening events at trial and on appeal of the underlying infringement claims, the summary judgment should be reinstated. But when plaintiff sought to do so, defendant again retracted its assent, charging that plaintiff failed to timely file its Rule 60 motion and that granting relief now would require separate damages trials on the infringement and contract claims.

The Court, already frustrated with defendant’s earlier attack on its subject-matter jurisdiction, rejected defendant’s assertion of untimeliness:

“Defendant’s arguments regarding resolution of damages and effect on the PTO’s reexamination proceedings are of no moment in determining whether relief under Rule 60 is appropriate. Granting the Rule 60 Motion for summary judgment, at this time, does not necessarily require that contract damages be tried separately from patent damages . . . . Establishing contractual liability now instead of later militates in favor of granting the Rule 60 Motion by limiting delay and allowing the court flexibility in scheduling a trial on damages.”

The Court also acknowledged that the PTO may benefit from resurrecting defendant’s contractual liability:

“There is no reason to deprive the PTO of any benefit, no matter how limited, it may receive from the court’s judgment in this matter. That the PTO may not be induced to terminate or suspend reexamination proceedings based on such judgment is of no moment to the equitable principles involved in the issue at bar.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated its order that dismissed the contract claim and reinstated the summary judgment in plaintiff’s favor. By doing so, the Court provided a useful roadmap for demonstrating “extraordinary circumstances” under Rule 60(b)(6): litigants should emphasize both the relative equities among the parties and the increased judicial efficiency attending the proposed relief from judgment.

Callaway Golf Co. v. Acushnet Co., C.A. No. 06-091-SLR (D. Del. Jan. 13, 2011) (Robinson, J.).

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