Launching a legal case takes time and effort. You must gather facts, write the complaint, and properly serve the defendant. And if you happen to get a default judgment, you don’t want it to be easily snatched away from you.
In most civil cases, defendants have 20 or 30 days to respond to the complaint or attend a hearing. If they don’t, the plaintiff can eventually ask the court to enter a default judgment. While this may seem like an automatic win for the plaintiff, it’s not quite that simple. Litigation rarely is.
An unresponsive defendant can be a tough opponent. If the defendant can provide a reasonable excuse for his delay, the default judgment can be overturned, and the case will be heard. Most requests to vacate or set aside a default judgment are filed within the first 30 days, but it’s possible for the issue to drag on for several years. Here are a few things that pro se litigants need to know about the process.
Unresponsive Defendants and the Legal Process
If you’re wondering about the implications of dealing with an unresponsive defendant, your case is probably well underway. Once the plaintiff has filed the complaint, the defendant typically responds by submitting an Answer to the Complaint stating their side of the case as well as any defenses. The defendant may also file a Motion to Dismiss. However, if the defendant hasn’t responded as required, the plaintiff can request an Entry of Default. Usually, this is as simple as filing the appropriate form with the court and submitting supporting evidence to validate the claim.
Requesting an Entry of Default
Before granting a default judgment, the court will review the facts of the case and the plaintiff’s request for Entry of Default to determine if the claim is reasonable. The outcome of the decision may vary depending on the type of lawsuit. For example, a default judgment in a family law case may allow one parent to claim full custody. In other situations, such as breach of contract lawsuits or personal injury claims, it may allow the plaintiff to collect damages by filing a lien or garnishing the defendant’s wages. The court usually has the final say in determining which damages are awarded. Although a default judgment can be considered a forfeiture or automatic win, it’s not set in stone.
What to Do if the Defendant Tries to Vacate a Default Judgment
Even if a default judgment has been entered in your favor, you aren’t out of the woods yet. Unresponsive defendants typically have a minimum of 30 days to contest a default judgment. In some cases, they have as long as one to two years to file a request to overturn the decision. This clock may only start counting down once the defendant receives a copy of the judgment. However, it becomes progressively more difficult for defendants to justify their tardiness over time.
If the defendant wants to challenge the default judgment, they might be required to file a Motion to Vacate and a Notice of Motion to Vacate. The plaintiff will receive a copy of these documents, and the court will set a date for a hearing to decide on the motion. Courts differ in their leniency when it comes to vacating default judgments. However, it’s important to remember that the legal system is designed to give both parties an equal say, so default judgments may be vacated more often than other court decisions.
Reasons for Vacating a Default Judgment
Defendants typically have two options for disputing a default judgment. They can claim that they didn’t receive the summons or weren’t properly served. Alternatively, they can provide a good reason for missing the court date or failing to respond to the complaint. With this type of request, the party must also submit a “meritorious defense” showing that they can defend their position.
Unresponsive defendants may provide a variety of acceptable excuses ranging from car troubles to bad legal advice, such as, “My attorney told me I didn’t have to appear.” If you’re the plaintiff, be ready for any of the following reasons to overturn or set aside a default judgment.
- A defendant wasn’t served properly.
- The defendant didn’t have enough time to respond.
- The defendant was out of town or otherwise unavailable.
- A mistake or excusable error prevented the defendant from attending.
- The defendant has satisfied the judgment.
- New information was discovered.
The Last Word
If the defendant’s Motion to Vacate is successful, the court will set a date for the case to be heard again. Plaintiffs can protect their interests by providing proof of proper service and other documentation.
To avoid having your default judgment vacated, take the time to execute each step of the complaint and summons process when launching your case. Follow both the local rules and rules of civil procedure for your jurisdiction, track every deadline, and stay one step ahead of the other side.
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