All the good Nashville lawyers I know are so busy right now. This is a good problem to have, but, nevertheless, it is a problem. There’s simply too much demand right now.
I overheard one local lawyer telling a story about a frantic call he received from a client, who was freaking out because they hadn’t filed an Answer to a lawsuit, and it had been more than 30 days after service.
“Have they filed a Motion for Default yet? If not, then it’s not late.”
I’m sure the lawyer was more tactful in the actual conversation, but the reasoning has some basis in local custom. Often, in Davidson County courts, if a defendant files an Answer before the hearing on a Motion for Default Judgment and pleads a tenable defense, a court will not grant a judgment under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 55, under the theory that the justice system prefers that “matters be decided on the merits” not a technicality. (See, generally, Discover Bank v. Morgan, 363 S.W.3d 479, 491 (Tenn. 2012)).
A recent opinion from the Tennessee Court of Appeals shows that there are risks in waiting to file an Answer.
That case is Conserv Equip. Leasing, LLC v. Schubert Enterprises, LLC, No. E2022-00535-COA-R3-CV, 2023 WL 1489768 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2023). There, the creditor filed a motion for default, and, a few days later, received a phone call from an attorney who “expected to be retained” by the defendants and asked for a 3 week continuance on the motion hearing. After the hearing was so continued, that defense attorney “fax-filed” an Answer at 3:59pm on the Friday before the Monday morning default hearing, with an original copy filed with the Clerk about 33 minutes before the hearing.
Defendant appeared at the hearing, objecting to the relief and presumably with filed Answer in hand, but the default judgment was nevertheless granted. At the trial court level, Defendants later tried to set aside the ruling on excusable neglect grounds and Tenn. R. C. P. 60.02.
The Court of Appeals noted that “[a]lthough courts construe Rule 60.02 ‘with liberality to afford relief from a default judgment,’ the movant bears the burden of showing ‘why the movant was justified in failing to avoid the … neglect’.” Id. at *2. The Court wrote that “[i]f the court finds that the defaulting party has acted willfully, the judgment cannot be set aside on ‘excusable neglect’ grounds…” and “[m]aking ‘deliberate choices’ amounts to willful conduct. Id.
In the end, the issue was remanded back to the trial court, whose order denying the Rule 60 motion failed to include findings of act and conclusions of law (per Tenn. R. Civ. P. 52.01). In short, the trial court didn’t provide any explanation for its ruling.
To be clear, though, the Court of Appeals didn’t say the trial court was wrong; instead, it sent it back down for the trial court to provide more explanation for its refusal to set aside the judgment. The most likely outcome, of course, is that the plaintiff will prepare a properly supported proposed order, the judge will sign it, and, then, that order will be appealed.
It’ll be an interesting case to watch, but, procedurally, it’s also a reminder: Don’t delay when dealing with court deadlines.