November 12, 2016
You just discovered that a judgment has been entered against you. This happened in one of three ways: (1) you failed to respond to the plaintiff’s complaint (be it a civil warrant or summons); (2) you failed to appear in court on the scheduled trial date; or (3) you lost at trial. If you did not respond to the plaintiff’s complaint or you failed to appear in court, a default judgment was entered against you. If you lost at trial, a trial judgment was entered against you. The typical remedy after losing a case after a trial is to file for an appeal, which is outside the scope of this article. This article is about how to vacate a judgment in lieu of filing an appeal.
Judgments are bad for many reasons and should be addressed promptly. They may appear on your credit report and lower your score significantly. The judgment-creditor can garnish your bank accounts and your wages, and can levy on real and personal property. A judgment can be generally enforced for a period of ten years, and judgments accrue interest at the statutory rate.
Depending on which court entered the judgment, the time frames, rules, and procedure differ on when you can file the appropriate motion for relief.
I. General Sessions Court.
The General Sessions Court in Tennessee is a court of limited jurisdiction. Each county in Tennessee has a General Sessions Court. The General Sessions Court derives its powers and authority solely by statute. “In the absence of specific statutory authority, the authority of the General Sessions Court ends when it enters judgment.” Jackson Energy Authority v. Diamond, 181 S.W.3d 735 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). Why does this matter if you have had a judgment entered against you? It matters because once court ends, and the court has entered a judgment against, it no longer has the authority or power to vacate or set aside the judgment – with one limited exception.
That exception is Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60. The Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure do not typically apply to the General Sessions Court unless applied by statute. Civil Procedure Rule 60 has been applied to the General Sessions Court by Tennessee Code Annotated (“T.C.A.”), § 16-15-727.
T.C.A. § 16-15-727, applies the general principal of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60 to General Sessions Courts, but the time frames for petitioning the court have changed. A person only has ten (10) days to file a motion with the court to set aside a judgment after the date of judgment. If you just happen to discover that a judgment was entered against you within 10 days of its entry; then you need to file a motion to set aside or vacate that judgment and state the grounds that support your motion immediately. Depending on the county, you would also want to check the local rules of procedure for any additional requirements on filing such a motion.
Another, more extreme option to seek relief from a judgment in the General Sessions Court would be to file a collateral attach on the judgment in the Circuit or Chancery Court. In other words, you could file a new and separate complaint to set aside the judgment of the General Sessions Court. One such case that successfully accomplished a collateral attack is Tanner v. Harris, 150 S.W.3d 161 (2003). In that case, a property owner brought an action in the Shelby County Chancery Court to set aside a default judgment on the grounds that the defendant was not served with process. The plaintiff in that matter was successful in setting aside the judgment. So if you have ample evidence that you were not served with process, and you are outside of the time limitations of taking action in the General Sessions Court, then perhaps a collateral attack may be an option for you.
Setting aside or vacating a judgment in the General Sessions Court is difficult and is an uphill battle. But it is possible in some situations. If you have discovered a judgment against you, you should immediately consult counsel.
II. Circuit & Chancery Courts.
If a judgment has been entered against you in a Circuit or Chancery Court, you may have a better chance of getting that judgment set aside. That is because those courts have broader power and the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure apply.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02, allows parties to file a motion to vacate or set aside a judgment. This motion must be made within one year of the judgment pursuant to parts 1 and 2 of that Rule, or within a reasonable time for the other parts of the Rule. Part 5 of the Rule states, “any other reason,” which would include non-service of process, or an irregularity. However, the court must look at additional factors when determining whether a judgment may be set aside. A party seeking relief from a judgment under Rule 60 bears the burden of proving it is entitled to relief by clear and convincing evidence. McNeary v. Baptist Memorial Hosp., 360 S.W.3d 429 (2011).
The test applied to evaluate a motion to set aside a default judgment due to mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect requires a consideration of the following factors: (1) whether the default was willful, (2) whether the defendant has a meritorious defense, and (3) whether the non-defaulting party would be prejudiced if relief were granted. Patterson v. SunTrust Bank, 328 S.W.3d 505 (2011). Additionally, excusable neglect requires the court to look at even more factors. These include: (1) the danger of prejudice to the party opposing the late filing; (2) the length of the delay and its potential impact on proceedings; (3) the reason why the filing was late and whether the reason or reasons were within the filer's reasonable control; and (4) the filer's good or bad faith. Ferguson v. Brown, 291 S.W.3d 381 (2008).
One case in which a movant successfully set aside a default judgment was the of Reynolds v. Battles, 108 S.W.3d 249 (2003). In that case, the defendants were able to show that they were never served with process because the service returns indicated that notices were sent to a wrong address.
Once again, seeking to set aside or vacate a judgment in a Chancery or Circuit court is difficult and is an uphill battle. The time for filing such a motion is more forgiving than in General Sessions Court, but the burden lies with the moving party to meet the tests of the law and provide sufficient evidence showing why the judgment should be set aside.
Sometimes it is possible to set aside a judgment that you discover was entered against you. Depending on which court entered the judgment, different rules and law apply. You should consult with an attorney as quickly as you can.
If you are seeking to set aside a judgment, contact the attorneys at Meridian Law, PLLC, at (615) 229-7499 today for a free consultation. We may be able to assist you.
The information contained on this blog article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship nor does it guarantee representation or any specific outcome. The information contained herein should not be relied up if you seek relief from a court of law. The law is constantly changing and while we try to keep articles up to date, it is possible that the law is no longer applicable. Consult with an attorney if you believe that you may have a legal issue.