Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(6) provides that the district court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding in five enumerated circumstances and, according to the sixth subpart, for any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment. Subpart (6) is properly invoked where there are extraordinary circumstances or where the judgment may work an extreme and undue hardship.
This appeal is the latest episode in a decade-long dispute over the ownership of an oil painting entitled "Champs de Ble a Vetheuil" by Claude Monet. The work by the celebrated French Impressionist was previously owned by plaintiff Gerda Dorothea DeWeerth, a German citizen. It was discovered missing from DeWeerth's family castle after World War II, and was subsequently purchased by defendant Edith Marks Baldinger, a New York resident, from third-party-defendant Wildenstein & Co., a New York art gallery. Baldinger and Wildenstein & Co. (referred to collectively as "defendants") appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Vincent L. Broderick, Judge) that granted DeWeerth's motion pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) for relief from the final judgment entered in favor of defendants in accordance with our decision in DeWeerth v. Baldinger, 836 F.2d 103 (2d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1056 (1988), and entered a new judgment in plaintiff's favor. Defendants contend that the district court was precluded from considering DeWeerth's motion by both jurisdictional principles and the doctrine of the law of the case; that the district court abused its discretion in ordering relief pursuant to Rule 60(b)(5) and (6); and that the district court wrongly entered judgment in favor of DeWeerth based on the erroneous conclusions that her claim was not barred by laches and that her right to possession of the painting was superior to Baldinger's.
Did the District Court Abuse its Discretion in Granting DeWeerth's Rule 60(b) Motion?
We conclude that the district court was not barred from considering DeWeerth's motion, but that it abused its discretion in ordering relief from the final judgment based on Rule 60(b).
Rule 60(b) provides that the district court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding in five enumerated circumstances and, according to the sixth subpart, for "any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment." Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(6). We have held that subpart (6) is "properly invoked where there are extraordinary circumstances or where the judgment may work an extreme and undue hardship." Matarese, 801 F.2d at 106.
We have carefully considered the circumstances analyzed by the district court and conclude that they do not warrant relief under Rule 60(b)(6). While acknowledging that Judge Broderick engaged in a scholarly and thorough discussion of the issues, we think that his decision inappropriately disturbed a final judgment in a case that had been fully litigated and was long since closed. In our view, Erie simply does not stand for the proposition that a plaintiff is entitled to reopen a federal court case that has been closed for several years in order to gain the benefit of a newly-announced decision of a state court. The limited holding of Erie is that federal courts sitting in diversity are bound to follow state law on any matter of substantive law not "governed by the Federal Constitution or by Acts of Congress." 304 U.S. at 78 However, the fact that federal courts must follow state law [*1273] when deciding a diversity case does not mean that a subsequent change in the law of the state will provide grounds for relief under Rule 60(b)(6). Brown v. Clark Equip. Co., 96 F.R.D. 166, 173 (D. Me. 1982) ("mere change in decisional law does not constitute an 'extraordinary circumstance'" under Rule 60(b)(6), especially where "plaintiffs elected to proceed in the federal forum, thereby voluntarily depriving themselves of the opportunity to attempt to persuade the [state court]"); Atwell v. Equifax, Inc., 86 F.R.D. 686, 688 (D. Md. 1980) (change in the state decisional law upon which appellate court based decision held "insufficient to warrant reopening a final judgment"). This principle also applies in federal cases where the Supreme Court has changed the applicable rule of law.