The simplest way to completely resolve a legal dispute is to reach an agreement. Opposing parties to a lawsuit are permitted, within certain limits, to reach settlement agreements resolving all issues in the dispute. However, even when legal matters are resolved by agreement, there still may be some opportunity for one side or the other to change their mind.
Motion for New Trial
When legal matters are decided by judge or jury, either party may file a motion for new trial within 10 days of filing of the judgment. The grounds for new trial are limited to:
1. Irregularity in the proceedings of the court, jury, referee, or prevailing party, or any order of the court or referee, or abuse of discretion, by which the party was prevented from having a fair trial;
2. Misconduct of the jury or a prevailing party;
3. Accident or surprise, which ordinary prudence could not have guarded against;
4. Excessive or inadequate damages, appearing to have been given under the influence of passion or prejudice;
5. Error in the assessment of the amount of recovery, whether too large or too small, where the action is upon a contract, or for the injury or detention of property;
6. That the verdict, report, or decision is not sustained by sufficient evidence, or is contrary to law;
7. Newly discovered evidence, material for the party applying, which could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial;
8. Error of law occurring at the trial, and objected to by the party making the application; or
9. When, without fault of the complaining party, it becomes impossible to prepare a record for an appeal.
Additionally, if a litigant files a motion for new trial and the motion is denied, then any appeal from the matter will be limited to the issues raised in the motion for new trial. For example, a litigant may believe that there were three big errors in the trial, but their motion for new trial only addresses one of the errors. If the trial court denies the motion for new trial, any appeal will be limited to the issue raised in the motion, and they will be prohibited from complaining on appeal about the two errors that they did not mention in the motion for new trial. Because of this risk of waiver, motions for new trial require careful thought and strategy.
Modifying, Vacating or Correcting an Order
Within 30 days of filing of a judgment, the judge may vacate or modify the judgment for almost any reason. This is called "term-time power," and it applies to both settlement agreements and trial outcomes. If either side wishes to appeal, they must file the appeal in this 30 day window. If either side desires to request compensation for their attorney fees incurred in the litigation, they must file their attorney fee request in this 30 day window. In other words, there is really no finality for up to 30 days after filing of a judgment, including things like divorce decrees.
After 30 days pass from the date the judgment was filed, the rules for vacating or modifying judgments change. The procedure is different, and the grounds for vacation or modification of a judgment after 30 days are limited to:
1. By granting a new trial for the cause;
2. Where the defendant had no actual notice of the pendency of the action at the time of the filing of the judgment or order;
3. For mistake, neglect, or omission of the clerk or irregularity in obtaining a judgment or order;
4. For fraud, practiced by the successful party, in obtaining a judgment or order;
5. For erroneous proceedings against an infant, or a person of unsound mind, where the condition of such defendant does not appear in the record, nor the error in the proceedings;
6. For the death of one of the parties before the judgment in the action;
7. For unavoidable casualty or misfortune, preventing the party from prosecuting or defending;
8. For errors in a judgment, shown by an infant in twelve (12) months after arriving at full age; or
9. For taking judgments upon warrants of attorney for more than was due to the plaintiff, when the defendant was not summoned or otherwise legally notified of the time and place of taking such judgment.
If fraud is claimed, the petition to vacate claiming fraud must be filed within 2 years of filing of the judgment.
Certificate of Mailing
Simply filing a judgment does not start the clock for the 10 day, 30 day and 2 year deadlines. In addition to filing the judgment, the person filing the judgment must also certify in writing that the filed judgment is being mailed to the opposing party. Then they must actually mail the filed judgment the same day to the opposing party. If the certificate of mailing is overlooked and not filed, that can mean that the finality timeline never started, and the opposing party may file a simple motion to have the case reopened. In cases resolved by agreement, this rule can be treated a little differently, so each side is required to keep an eye on the court docket to see when the judgment was filed in order to calculate their 30 day window.