At Morning Court


At Morning Court.

It was morning court at the General District Court in an old town city.  I was watching the paintings of retired judges on the wall when I noticed that a lot of the cases before me were being disposed of via default judgment.  Looking at the distraught faces of the defendants as they were leaving, I thought about how these judgments could have been avoided.

To understand default judgment in layman’s term, think of someone losing a sport game because he failed to follow the rules.  For example, a baseball team without a pitcher will lose or forfeit the game; a boxer without his gloves will be prevented from participating in a match; a golfer who fails to submit his score card at the end of the round will be disqualified.  All these players will lose or be disqualified from the game not because they didn’t want to play, but because they failed to follow the rules of the game.

It’s the same with default judgment in a civil proceeding.  When you are sued as a defendant, there are certain rules you must follow.  The first rule is to show up for any court hearings.  If you don’t show up when you’re supposed to, you will lose by default.  Why?  Because the law assumes that if you fail to appear on the court date you have forfeited your rights to trial.  The second rule is to file necessary court documents.  You have to listen carefully to what the judge tells you regarding if you have to file certain documents and when you have to file them with the court.  Why all these rules in a lawsuit?  Why can’t we just go to court and tell our story and be done with it?

The court rules are important because it provides for fair and orderly disposition of a case.  If we didn’t have these rules of engagement, the parties could hide crucial evidence, make uncorroborated claims, delay trial to inconvenience the other party, and generally try to gain an unfair advantage over the other.  That’s why the court sets specific rules regarding when a plaintiff has to file a complaint outlining his case, when a defendant has to answer/refute that allegations, when to exchange documents so neither side will be unfairly surprised/prejudice, and what evidences are relevant at trial in order to exclude non-relevant/prejudicial evidence.

And if you don’t follow these rules, you can lose your case.  Which is what default judgment is all about.

I would say about 90 percent of the default judgment in the General District Court (small claims court) happens this way:  the plaintiff’s attorney tells the judge that the defendant (usually without an attorney) was told by the court at the first status hearing to file an “answer” to the plaintiff’s complaint within a certain time frame.  The defendant failed to file his answer formally refuting plaintiff’s allegations.  Since no answer has been filed, the defendant has admitted plaintiff’s allegations by default.  Thus, as there is no issue to be contested, the court should grant default judgment as a matter of law.

At this point the judge turns to the defendant and asks why the answer was not filed.  The defendant never gives a good answer (like I was hospitalized for the past month and couldn’t do anything let alone respond to a legal document).  Instead, the defendant usually says I am still trying to negotiate with the plaintiff’s attorney and asks the court for more time.  In other words, the defendant wrongly assumes that the court will give the parties more time to settle it out, despite the fact that the plaintiff’s attorney is asking for a judgment.

The judge looks wearily at the defendant, knowing that this is what the defendant usually says and knowing that this is not a defense.  The judge tells the defendant he was warned that if he did not file an “answer” that there would be a judgment rendered against him.  Since no good cause is given, the judge states that he will grant plaintiff attorney’s motion for default judgment and enter judgment in the amount requested, which may include attorney’s fee.

The defendant looks a little shocked and disgusted at this point, realizing that he is now a couple of thousand dollars more in debt than when he came to court.  Of course, the defendant has a right to appeal this judgment, but usually the defendant must post a money bond equal to the amount of judgment.  If the judgment is several thousand dollars that pretty much negates any chances of the defendant appealing this decision.

But you might tell me that there is nothing to fight about.  In a suit to collect a loan, for example, you tell me that you borrowed money, didn’t pay, so you owe the money.  What is there to fight about?  Why bother filing an answer?  True.  Sometimes the facts are straightforward that fighting seems useless and a waste of your time and attorney’s fees.  In that instance, you might be better off fighting collection or opting for bankruptcy.

However, I’ve had more than one instances where the amount claimed in the complaint was overblown, where the plaintiff’s theory was flawed, where by filing an answer and fighting it you forced the other side to reconsider its position and come to a settlement table in a different stance.  At least you are fighting, trying to gain an advantage that the law provides.

Otherwise, you are standing in front of a judge.  Receiving a judgment you cannot afford.  Distraught and disgusted at what just happened.  All at morning court.

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