Relief from Default Judgment Difficult, Not Impossible

May 22, 2013
By The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC on May 22, 2013 8:18 AM |

In the case of Butler v. Vinsant, No. M2012-01553-COA-R3-JV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 15, 2013), Knoxville divorce lawyers learn that obtaining relief from a default judgment requires proof of mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.

Facts: In 2010, Mother filed a Petition to Set Child Support against Mr. Vinsant, the alleged biological father in Juvenile Court. Father filed a Response admitting paternity but denying that he owed support due to the fact that the children resided with him the majority of the time. Simultaneously but under a different docket number, Father also filed a Petition to Legitimate and for Custody, requesting that he be named the primary parent. The two actions were consolidated and Mother was allowed to amend her petition to include custody. Mother then filed an Amended Petition asking to be the primary parent. Meanwhile, Father's attorney withdrew. Father never filed an Answer to Mother's Amended Petition, so Mother filed a Motion for Default Judgment and set a hearing. Father failed to appear at that hearing. The trial court found the following: Mother was entitled to a default based upon Father' s failure to answer or appear; that Father's paternity was established; that Mother was primary residential parent with Father having every-other-weekend visitation; that child support was set and Mother was awarded an arrearage.

Father then filed a Rule 60.02 Motion to Vacate Default Judgment. In said Motion, Father provided affidavits stating that his failure to answer or appear was excusable because his prior attorney failed to forward his file to the new counsel. The Rule 60.02 motion was denied by the trial court and Father appealed.

Analysis: Rule 60.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure states that a court may relieve a party from a final judgment or order based upon mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect. A trial court's ruling shall only be overturned upon a finding of abuse of discretion (meaning application of an incorrect legal standard, an illogical conclusion, a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence or reasoning causing injustice to the complaining party).

Further, three factors are used to determine if the default should be vacated: whether the default was willful; whether there was a meritorious defense; and whether the other party would be prejudiced.

Here, the Appeals Court found that Father only had a meritorious defense regarding the custody issue. The evidence in the record submitted by Father - an affidavit and his original petition (which is not evidence by itself) - only contains allegations regarding child custody factors and failed to include facts about his income, child support obligation or arrearage. Further, his Rule 60 Motion fails to dispute or point out any error in the trial court's calculation of child support or the arrearage. However, his Petition avers that he has a loving relationship with the child, and had been the primary caretaker.

Next, the Appeals Court looked to see whether Father's failure to appear and answer was willful. "Willful" means intentional and voluntary rather than accidental and not due to coercion. Father argues he did not have actual notice of the hearing. Therefore, the question becomes whether Father's inaction in promptly obtaining a new attorney and failing to stay updated on the proceedings was willful, less than willful but not excusable, or excusable. Even though Father's first attorney failed to keep Father informed, Father failed to promptly obtain new counsel even after being advised to do so; Father further failed to inform opposing counsel or the court of his lack of representation for several months, until the filing of the Rule 60 Motion. The record also showed that Father ignored his prior attorney's repeated advice to quickly obtain substitute counsel. Therefore, although these actions were not calculated to avoid the court proceedings, the Appellate Court found his actions were not inexcusable, meaning Father is not entitled to any relief under Rule 60.02.