Tennessee Court of Appeals Vacates a Williamson County Chancery Court’s Order of Default Judgment

Regions Bank v. Chas A. Sandford, No. M2015-02215-COA-R3-CV

November 21, 2016

Service of process is essential to the tenant of due process. Service of process, in simple terms, means the delivery of legal papers. Once a lawsuit has been filed against a defendant, the plaintiff must serve the defendant with all of the legal papers. Only then can the lawsuit move forward. If the defendant is not properly served with process, the lawsuit cannot continue. If the defendant is properly served with process, then the lawsuit may continue pursuant to the applicable rules of procedure.

The Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure (“Tenn. R. Civ. P.”), govern all aspects of civil procedure in the Chancery Courts of Tennessee. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.04 states, generally, that an individual defendant must be served with process personally, or by leaving process at the defendant’s usual dwelling house with a person of suitable age and discretion. Another option for service is that the plaintiff may mail process to the defendant by certified mail requesting restricted delivery. (See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.04(1)-(11) for a full list of acceptable forms of service). After the defendant has been served with process by an available method, the plaintiff must file proof of service with the court. Tn. R. Civ. P. 5.03.

If a defendant is properly served with process and fails to file a responsive pleading within the appropriate amount of time, then the plaintiff may ask the court to enter a default judgment against the defendant. Tn. R. Civ. P. 55.01.

In Regions Bank v. Chas A. Sandford, No. M2015-02215-COA-R3-CV (Tn. Ct. App. November 16, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals at Nashville, vacated a default judgment ordered by the Williamson County Chancery Court. In that decision, the plaintiff’s process server attempted to serve the defendant eleven times without success. Following the eleven attempts at service, plaintiff again attempted to serve the defendant by certified mail. The United States Postal Service returned the receipt marked, “Return to Sender,” “Unclaimed,” and “Unable to Forward.” The plaintiff then filed an affidavit indicating that service had been properly completed – even though service was not completed pursuant to the Tenn. R. Civ. P.

Regions Bank then filed a motion for default judgment against the defendant. Defendant finally responded by filing a “special appearance” contesting service of process. On September 25, 2015, the Williamson County Chancery Court granted plaintiff’s motion and entered a default judgment for $153,274.13 against the defendant. The defendant appealed.   

The Court of Appeals held that service cannot be completed by mail unless the record contains a return receipt showing personal acceptance by the defendant. A return receipt marked “unclaimed” does not show personal acceptance by a defendant and therefore cannot serve as a basis for an entry of a default judgment.

Regions Bank argued on appeal that the defendant was on notice of the lawsuit because he filed a “special appearance”. The Court of Appeals found that argument to be without merit because the law is clear: “actual notice of the lawsuit is not a substitute for service of process when the Rules of Civil Procedure so require.” Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by entering a default judgment based on service of process by mail with a return receipt marked “unclaimed.” In so finding, the Court of Appeals vacated the Williamson County Chancery Court’s order of default judgment against the defendant.

Service of process is vital in Tennessee to ensure that a defendant’s due process rights are protected. If a defendant is not properly served, no judgment may result. However, if the court does enter a judgment against a defendant that has not been properly served, that judgment could be vacated.

If you are a defendant and have had a judgment entered against you by default, you may have options to have the judgment vacated. It is important that you seek the advice of legal counsel. The attorneys at Meridian Law, PLLC, may be able to assist. Call Meridian today at (615) 229-7499.

Vacating a Judgment in Tennessee

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.

III.             Conclusion.

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.

Disclaimer:

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.