Saturday, July 7, 2007

Wash. Supreme Court Clarifies Default Judgment Rules

If you file a lawsuit and serve the defendant, and then the defendant does nothing, you're entitled to a default judgment. But sometimes the defendant can have the default judgment set aside. (Want to read the rules? See CR 55 and CR 60.) The courts have set aside default judgments liberally, because they favor resolving cases on their merits.

The Washington Supreme Court recently addressed just how liberally to grant relief from default judgments, reviewing three cases consolidated in Morin v. Burris, majority, concurrence/dissent (June 28, 2007).

The court found that two of the defendants had failed to meet their burden to justify setting aside the default judgments, because their actions in defending the cases were before the cases were filed. In a third case, the court found that the defendant had been misled by plaintiff's counsel; the court remanded for a finding whether the defendant had made a sufficient appearance to justify setting aside the default judgment.

We favor resolution of disputes on the merits. We will liberally apply the civil rules and equitable principles to vacate default judgments where fairness and justice requires. However, when served with a summons and complaint, a party must appear. There must be some potential cost to encourage parties to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction. Substantial compliance will satisfy the notice of appearance requirement. We do not exalt form over substance and appearance may be accomplished informally. However, we reject the argument that prelitigation communications alone may satisfy the appearance requirements of CR 4 and CR 55, and we decline to adopted the doctrine of informal appearance as formulated by the courts
Slip op. at 17 (Chambers, J.)

Justice Bridge (joined by Chief Justice Alexander and Justice Madsen) concurred in part and dissented in part. She agreed with the majority's result in two of the three cases but disagreed with its reasoning. In the third case, she would remand for a trial on the merits.
I would hold that a party in Washington may informally appear such that notice to that party is required before a default order or judgment is sought against it. Informal appearance is a matter of intent, but such intent must be manifested after an action is commenced.
Dissent slip op. at 7.

Photo of Justice Chambers from Washington Courts website.

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