When a Defendant doesn’t file an Answer to a Complaint in the required 30 days (and never files even a late Answer), the Plaintiff can ask for a Judgment “by default,” i.e. as a result only of the Defendant’s failure to respond.
This happens a lot in Chancery Court collections cases. Conventional wisdom says that, if the Defendant doesn’t have the money to pay the debt, then he probably doesn’t have the money to pay a lawyer to fight the lawsuit.
About once or twice a year, after complete silence from a defendant (and after I get a judgment), I’ll receive a “Motion to Set Aside a Default Judgment,” asking the Court to undo the Judgment and allow him to litigate the matter.
I’ve seen all kinds of excuses. One Debtor had a heart condition and didn’t want to deal with the stress. Another says his lawyer forgot to tell him about the Motion. Or the postman didn’t deliver it. Or all of the above.
A rule of thumb is that Tennessee courts dislike defaults, and the courts would rather matters be decided on the merits. That’s what all the Motions to Set Aside always say.
Last week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a new opinion in Monroe v. Monroe (a divorce case) that contains a good, precise statement of the standards for setting a default judgment aside.
The Court confirmed that default judgments aren’t favored and a Court will err on the side of the moving party, but the moving party must show that relief is appropriate under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 and that it has a “meritorious defense” to the lawsuit.
Rule 60.02 requires a showing of mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. That’s not enough, however: the moving party must also show some sort of defense to the action.
The second prong is designed to prevent a party setting aside a judgment, only to suffer an inevitable summary judgment a month later because they didn’t have any defenses.
I’d add that a Motion under Rule 60.02 must be made within a “reasonable time” and, generally, no later than a year after the Judgment.
As a creditor’s lawyer, I hate these. Leave my judgments alone.