Obi v. Obi, No. M2010-00485-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 2150733 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 1, 2011) shows that if a person never received notice to a default judgment made during a Tennessee divorce proceeding, they may be relieved from that judgment.
Husband and Wife were married and had two children. Wife filed a complaint for divorce, and Husband filed an Answer denying Wife's grounds for divorce. Husband did not respond to any of the discovery requests, but when Wife filed a Motion to Compel, Husband and Wife jointly filed an Agreed Order. After the Agreed Order was entered, Husband's attorney withdrew from representation. Wife then filed a motion to set trial and hold a hearing on her motion to compel. Since Husband never responded to the discovery request, the court dismissed Husband's Answer and granted Wife a Final Judgment of Divorce. The trial court also adopted the Parenting Plan that Wife submitted and ordered Husband to pay child support in the amount of $131.00 a week.
Six months later, Husband, acting pro se, filed a Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60 motion for relief and to set aside the judgment. Husband explained that he did not live at the address listed on the certificates of service attached to Wife's court filings after his counsel withdrew representation, and was therefore never served with notice of the divorce proceedings. Husband also showed that he was a full-time student, unemployed, that his supposed income that Wife listed in the Child Support Worksheet was incorrect, and therefore he had no way of paying child support. He also objected to the Parenting Plan that Wife submitted. The trial court denied his motion and Husband appealed.
When filing a Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60 motion, the burden is on the movant to set forth facts explaining why the final judgment should be set aside. Also, the motion should be granted if there is reasonable doubt as to the justness of dismissing the case before it can be heard on the merits. To determine this a court considers (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.
Regarding Husband, the appellate court found that since he never received notice to the motions due to them being sent to the wrong address, his failure to defend against Wife's complaint was not willful. The appellate court also found that Husband had a meritorious defense since he was a full-time student who was not working. This information would have been important for the trial court to consider regarding child support. Husband also should not have been denied the opportunity to present his arguments regarding the parenting plan. Lastly, Wife did not demonstrate that she would be prejudiced if Husband's Rule 60 motion was granted. Having Wife prove her case against Husband in a trial where both sides are provided the opportunity to present evidence in their favor did not constitute prejudice.
Most importantly, Husband was denied due process of law when he did not receive notice of actions in the divorce proceedings. For the above reasons, the appellate court held that the trial court erred when it denied Husband's Rule 60 motion regarding the parenting plan and the child support.