The Law Office of Patrick C. Burpee, LLC - consumer rights
The Law Office of Patrick C. Burpee, LLC - consumer rights

Vacating Default Judgments

Vacating Default Judgments

By Attorney Patrick C. Burpee

You just learned that a default judgment was entered against you for thousands of dollars. You never even knew that a lawsuit had been filed against you. Can you do anything about it now? In Washington, the civil rules of legal procedure permit defendants to vacate judgments improperly entered against them, provided certain requirements have been met. This article explores the general requirements for vacating a default judgment in Washington.

In general, default judgments are disfavored in Washington. The court would prefer to decide a dispute on their merits. However, timing can play a significant part in whether and under what conditions the judgment can be vacated.

First, you should determine if service of the summons and complaint upon you was proper. If in fact you were improperly served or simply not served, the judgment against you is void. For example, if you no longer live with your spouse and your spouse was served at your old address (a very common scenario), any judgment against you should recognized as void upon motion to the appropriate court. However, until the court determines the judgment to be void, creditors will proceed with garnishment, repossession and other collection techniques. There are no time limitations in seeking to have a judgment vacated by the court if the judgment was obtained through insufficient service of the summons and complaint.

Next, you should determine when the default judgment was entered by the court. For cases involving fraud, misrepresentation, misconduct, and several other situations specifically listed in the rule, there is no specific filing deadline. However, a motion to vacate the default judgment must be presented within a "reasonable time."

A one year deadline exists for other situations. For example, a motion to vacate a default judgment must be filed within one year from the date the judgment was entered by the court if the grounds for vacating the default judgment are based on mistake, inadvertence, surprise, excusable neglect, irregularity or newly discovered evidence. The majority of cases I see fall within this category.

Ultimately, the party seeking to have the judgment vacated must show that: (1) there is substantial evidence of a defense to the plaintiff's claim; (2) the failure to timely appear or defend the lawsuit was due to mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect; (3) the defendant acted with due diligence after receiving notice of the order of default judgment; and (4) no substantial hardship will result to the non-moving party and opposing party if the default judgment is vacated. If there is strong defense, the court will likely spend less time analyzing the exact reason for why the defendant failed to appear, provided the failure was not intentional.

Certain Washington cases provide some examples of what constitutes irregularity, mistake, inadvertence, or surprise for purposes of vacating a default judgment within one year of entry. The failure to attach an exhibit such as a contract, has constituted adequate evidence of "irregularity" for purposes of vacating a default judgment. Additionally, the misplacement of a complaint as the result of a vision problem caused by diabetic complications has also been sufficient to vacate a default judgment based on "mistake." In sum, the court will analyze the facts of each particular case to determine what constitutes sufficient grounds for vacating a default judgment provided the motion is presented timely to the court when required by the rules of civil procedure.

As discussed above, allowing a default judgment to stand uncontested can be damaging to any defense you may have. A creditor will proceed as though the judgment were valid and can garnish wages and bank accounts, as well as execute on personal property such as automobiles, boats, furniture, jewelry, etc. If the facts of your case warrant that a default judgment against you be vacated, contact our attorney for legal assistance immediately.

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