Vacatur of foreign judgments: options for collateral relief in courts of registration.

AuthorGordon, Richard E.

    The American system of government consists of sovereign states bound together by a federal government that possesses limited powers. (1) Since the earliest days of the republic, judicial bodies have entertained actions to enforce judgments that were rendered in different states. (2) Courts have long believed that the judicial body registering the judgment ("registering court" or "court of registration") is not bound to do so unless the court rendering the judgment ("rendering court" or "court of rendition") "ha[s] jurisdiction of the parties and of the subject-matter." (3) The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure adopt this traditional position by allowing parties to petition the court for relief from a final judgment if the judgment is void, i.e., if the rendering court lacked jurisdiction. (4)

    Jurisdictional deficiencies are not the only grounds for relief from final judgment under the Rules; indeed, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) ("Rule 60(b)") provides a total of six grounds for relief. (5) Traditionally, a judgment was considered void if it contained a jurisdictional defect, while judgments with non-jurisdictional deficiencies were only considered voidable. (6) The distinction between void and voidable judgments is important because void judgments are subject to both direct and collateral attack, whereas voidable judgments may be subject to direct attack. (7) Thus, the traditional view has been that a party could only make collateral attacks against judgments on a theory of jurisdictional deficiency. (8)

    The Seventh and Third Circuit Courts of Appeals, however, reject this traditional view. The Seventh Circuit has held that registering courts lack the power to entertain motions to vacate foreign judgments for jurisdictional deficiencies. (9) In contrast, the Third Circuit has recently given registering courts the power to vacate foreign judgments on grounds that the rendering court lacked jurisdiction, and has indicated that registering courts may vacate pursuant to the catch-all provision of Rule 60(b)(6). (10) This note investigates the procedural implications of these three deviate approaches. Part II of this note examines the history and nature of the current circuit split. (11) Part III analyzes the various rationales for expanding and contracting options for collateral relief, and concludes by suggesting that all circuits return to the traditional rule that allows vacatur only in cases of jurisdictional deficiency. (12)


    The text of the original Rule 60(b), adopted in 1937, provided a procedure for relief from a judgment based on mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. (13) It was not until the amendment in 1946, however, that the void judgment provision of Rule 60(b)(4) and catch-all provision of Rule 60(b)(6) were added. (14) The rule has not been substantively altered since 1946. (15) In its current form, Rule 60(b) is typically "used to relieve parties from the effect of a default judgment mistakenly entered against them." (16)

    The First Circuit Court of Appeals takes the traditional approach to cases involving vacatur of foreign judgments. The First Circuit has stated that registering courts may not grant relief from foreign judgments unless the judgment is jurisdictionally deficient or there are grounds that support an independent equitable action. (17) In reaching this conclusion, the First Circuit was strongly influenced by the history of the 1946 amendment to Rule 60(b). (18) The First Circuit also noted that confining Rule 60(b) motions to rendering courts furthers important judicial policy goals, such as improving judicial efficiency. (19)

    Many of the other circuits take the position adopted by the First Circuit, holding that vacatur is appropriate in the case of jurisdictional deficiencies. (20) For instance, the Second Circuit held that "Rule 60(b)(4) may be invoked in the registration court to obtain relief from a foreign default judgment attacked as void for lack of personal jurisdiction over the parties against whom it was rendered." (21) More recently, the Fifth Circuit held that although allowing registering courts to sustain jurisdictional challenges to foreign default judgments under Rule 60(b)(4) impedes judicial efficiency and comity, deference to the court of rendition is not necessarily appropriate when the challenged judgment is a default judgment. (22) The Ninth Circuit has held that courts of registration have wide discretion to entertain motions challenging foreign judgments, but such motions are disfavored. (23) And lastly, the Tenth Circuit has previously held that registering courts should defer Rule 60(b) motions to rendering courts unless there is a jurisdictional deficiency or grounds for an independent action. (24) Thus, the majority rule adopted by the First, Second, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits is that Rule 60(b) motions should be made in the rendering court, but need not be when the judgment contains a jurisdictional deficiency or grounds for an independent equitable action.

    The Seventh Circuit takes a narrower view on the power of registering courts to alter judgments under Rule 60(b). (25) The Seventh Circuit has held that registering courts lack the authority to entertain motions to vacate foreign judgments pursuant to Rule 60(b). (26) In reaching this conclusion, the Seventh Circuit strictly construed 28 U.S.C. [section] 1963, which governs the registration of judgments for enforcement in other district courts. (27) The Seventh Circuit has also relied on important policy considerations, such as comity among the district courts and efficient judicial administration. (28)

    In contrast to the majority rule and the Seventh Circuit rule, the Third Circuit recently expanded options for relief from judgments available in registering courts. In addition to allowing vacatur for jurisdictional deficiency, the Third Circuit permits registering courts to use the catch-all provision under Rule 60(b)(6) for vacating judgments rendered by other district courts. (29) Although the Third Circuit agrees with the majority rule insofar as Rule 60(b) motions should generally be made in courts of rendition, it does not preclude the possibility of allowing registering courts to invoke Rule 60(b)(6) to vacate judgments. (30) Critics of the Third Circuit approach have noted that such an interpretation "creates a circuit split where none existed before." (31)


    1. The Majority Approach

      Perhaps the most persuasive reason for allowing vacatur of foreign judgments in the event of jurisdictional defect is the inherent power of courts to void such judgments. (32) A judgment entered by a court lacking personal jurisdiction over the subject of the judgment is a nullity. (33) As the Second Circuit noted in Covington, "[w]hen, in an enforcement proceeding, the validity of the judgment is questioned on this ground, the enforcing court has the inherent power to void the judgment, whether the judgment was issued by a tribunal within the enforcing court's domain or by a court of a foreign jurisdiction." (34) Registering courts' inherent power to vacate foreign judgments for jurisdictional defect have prompted courts adopting the majority approach to find that parties may raise Rule 60(b)(4) motions in the registering court. (35)

      In addition, it makes sense to allow the registering court to evaluate jurisdiction of the rendering court when the party seeking to register the judgment chose that particular forum. (36) The Covington court noted that "[r]ecognizing the power in a different court to determine the jurisdiction of the rendering court is particularly appropriate when the party who obtained the default judgment is attempting to enforce it in another court." (37) If the party seeking enforcement chooses to avail himself of a particular forum, then fairness dictates that the forum should have the power to question the underlying validity of the original judgment before choosing whether to register the judgment. (38)

    2. The Seventh Circuit Approach

      The Seventh Circuit has relied heavily on the text of [section] 1963 in reaching its conclusion that registering courts are not permitted to entertain Rule 60(b) motions. (39) Section 1963 permits litigants to register judgments in one district court that are obtained in another district court. (40) Since the text of [section] 1963 states that a rendering court's judgment merely has the effect of a registering court's judgment, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that registering courts lack the power to modify the judgment under Rule 60(b). (41) Therefore, while a registering court may refuse to give a jurisdictionally deficient judgment effect, it may not vacate the judgment. (42)

      In addition to the textual argument that [section] 1963 makes Rule 60(b)...

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