Court of Appeals Clarifies Authority of Trial Court to Consider Rule 60(b) Motion While Appeal Is Pending

On December 22, 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided District of Columbia v. Fraternal Order of Police Metropolitan Police Labor Committee, Lead No. 09-CV-255, slip op. (D.C. Dec. 22, 2011) which raised the issue of “whether, and if so to what extent, the trial court in a civil case – once its final order is on appeal – has authority to entertain a motion by the appellant for relief from that order under Superior Court Civil Rule 60 (b)(6) based on allegedly ‘changed circumstances.'” Id. at 2. By way of background, pursuant to Rule 60(b), a trial court may provide relief from an order or judgment in situations involving mistake, inadvertence, excusable neglect, newly discovered evidence, fraud, etc.

This case arose from “a complaint to enforce a request for documents that the Fraternal Order of Police/Metropolitan Police Labor Committee (‘FOP’) submitted to the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (‘MPD’) pursuant to the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act (‘FOIA’).” Id. The trial court ordered the District to produce documents, and the District appealed. Id. at 3. Shortly after filing the appeal, however, the District filed a motion pursuant to Rule 60(b)(6) requesting the trial court to amend or clarify its order compelling production of documents based on allegedly changed circumstances. Id. at 3-4. The trial court denied the motion on the grounds that it did not have jurisdiction to amend or clarify its order because the order was already on appeal. Id. at 4-5. The District then appealed the trial court’s order denying the Rule 60(b) motion. Id. at 5.

In reviewing the trial court’s orders, the Court of Appeals held that “the trial court correctly determined that it could not enter a ruling on the Rule 60 (b) motion that would have the effect of altering the order on appeal.” Id. at 2. It further held, however, that the trial court nonetheless had intermediate authority to decide whether it would alter its order if given the opportunity by a remand, and erred by failing to decide that issue. Id. at 7-11. The Court of Appeals explained that, pursuant to long-standing precedent, the Court of Appeals may remand a case for further proceedings if the trial court unequivocally indicates that it would alter its order if given the opportunity by a remand. Id. The Court of Appeals further held that the trial court had intermediate authority to conduct an evidentiary hearing, if necessary, to decide whether it would alter its order if given the opportunity. Id. at 7. In light of these holdings and the importance of the issues raised by the Rule 60(b) motion, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the trial court’s order denying the motion and remanded the order compelling production of documents for further consideration. Id. at 12.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion in this case is accompanied by two separate concurring opinions, one addressing “substantive FOIA and related issues to be decided on remand” and another which “discusses various considerations applicable in delineating the authority of the trial and appellate courts with respect to post-appeal motions for relief from judgment.” Id. at 2.