What Options Do I Have If I Disagree with the Judge’s Orders in a Family Law Case?
If you think a judgment or order was entered against you inappropriately, there are a variety of options, depending on the circumstance. Those circumstances include: (a) newly discovered evidence; (b) fraud or misrepresentation by the other party; (c) mistake, (d) inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect by you , (e) that the judgment is somehow void or illegal; (f) that the judgement has been satisfied, reversed or vacated; (g) that it is no longer equitable that the order or judgment should continue to be in effect, or (h) or similar kinds of errors.
Additionally, if the judgment was a default judgment, there are specific rules governing when a default judgment may be set aside. If a judgment or order has entered after a trial but additional testimony is needed, the court also has discretion to take additional testimony and amend or modify its ruling.
What Are the Rules Governing Relief from an Order or a Judgment?
The most commonly invoked rule for family law cases in Utah to obtain relief from a judgment or an order is rule 60 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Under rule 60(b), the court may relieve a party from a judgment or an order or proceeding due to six different reasons.
- Mistake, inadvertent surprise or excusable neglect
- Newly discovered evidence, which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time
- Fraud, misrepresentation or a misconduct of an opposing party
- The judgment is void
- The judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it has been based, has been reversed or vacated or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have perspective application
- Any other reason that justifies relief.
In order for any of the first three reasons, any motion seeking relief under any of the first three reasons, has to be filed within 90 days of entry of the judgment or order. This puts the burden on the party claiming surprise or excusable neglect or newly discovered evidence or fraud to raise their concerns with the court in a timely manner. If they don’t, they’ve waived those concerns. However, if the judgment is void because it is, for some reason, essentially illegal, no time limit is associated with that. There is a lot of case law in Utah from the Utah Court of Appeals and from Utah Supreme Court describing when it is appropriate for a motion or a judgment to be set aside due to these six reasons.
For example, in order to demonstrate fraud, very specific criteria need to be met. According to the Utah Court of Appeals, there needs to be a representation concerning a presently existing fact which is false. If the representor recklessly knew that he had insufficient knowledge upon which to make such a representation, that false or misleading representation has to be made for the purpose of adducing the other party to act on it. That party must have actually acted on it or acted reasonably or an ignorance of its falsity and did in fact, rely on the representation and was damaged as a result.
There are similar criteria to establish undue influence. For example, a threat to improperly abuse the legal process can constitute duress. Obviously, if someone is threatening someone physically that can also constitute duress, but it has to be some kind of unlawful or unconscionable pressure that is applied. A threat simply to litigate and continue the court case will not constitute duress.
Additionally, even if one of the first three rules 60 grounds apply, again those being fraud, newly discovered evidence or mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect, the person moving the court to set aside the judgment or order also has to demonstrate that they have a “meritorious defense”. In other words, the court does not simply want to set aside its order or a judgment if the outcome is inevitable anyway.
If somebody is claiming excusable neglect as a reason to set aside the order, they have to demonstrate that they exercised some degree of diligence and the neglect has to be excusable on some basis. One cannot just say, “Oops, I forgot”, for example or, “I forgot the deadline”. Instead, they have to show that they acted as a reasonable, prudent person would under the same circumstances. All of that can go under rule 60.
Rule 55(c) states, “A good cause shown, the court may set aside an entry of default and if a judgment by default is entered, may likewise set it aside in according with rules 60(b).” Default judgments are easier to set aside than judgments that have been made after a hearing or a trial. This is because the courts would rather cases be heard and decided on their merits, and on the actual evidence, rather than just by virtue of the fact that one party failed to file an answer or showed up. Although the grounds by reference previously in rule 60(b) will still need to be shown, the court will enforce a more relaxed burden much of the time if the judgment or an order entered due to a default. The closer in time or rather the sooner someone files a motion to set aside a default judgment the more likely that motion will be granted.
Rule 59 – New Trials or Amending Judgments
Under rule 59 of Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, the court may grant a new trial or alter or amend its judgment for any of the following reasons:
- Irregularity in the proceedings of the court or opposing party or any order of the court or abuse of discretion that somehow prevented the party from having a fair trial
- Accident or surprise that ordinary prudence could not have guarded against
- Newly discovered material that could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered or produced at trial
- Excessive or inadequate damages or awards that appeared to have been given under the influence of passion or prejudice. In other words, the judge was so angry at somebody he ruled something that was inappropriate
- Insufficiency of the evidence to justify the decision
- The court’s ruling is contrary to law or was based on an error in the law.
You’ll notice many of the grounds set forth in rule 59 are similar to the grounds referenced in rule 60, that they are not identical and they provided a different and distinct possibility for relief. A motion under this rule must be filed no later than 20 days after the judgment is entered.
Rule 52 – Amendment of Ruling
Rather than asking for a new trial, under rule 52 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, a party can simply ask the court to amend its ruling. A motion made under rule 52 can also be made in conjunction with a motion for a new trial under rule 59. Under rule 52 most specific criteria or grounds are stated under which a party may seek relief under this rule. However, the court would be unlikely to amend its ruling under rule 52 unless grounds similar to those set forth in rule 59 and rule 60 discussed previously can be established.
Finally, a party can appeal the final decision of the judge. Appellate procedure and process is sufficiently complex and we’ll not attempt to describe the appellate process and burden herein.