Alabama – When is a Default Judgment Really a Default?

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals says the trial court must affirmatively apply a three-factor analysis before denying a Rule 60(b) motion after a default judgment. The defendant husband in Campbell v. Campbell, Case No. 2030437 (Ala. Civ. App. April 22, 2005 was duly served but did not respond within 30 days. In fact, it was more than five months after service that the plaintiff wife moved for a default judgment. The trial court entered a divorce judgment based on the husband’s default, ordering property division, child custody, child support, and alimony of $11,000 per month (must have been one rich defaulting husband). The wife filed a motion to alter, amend, or vacate to clarify the judgment 27 days after it was entered, and the trial court granted her motion 6 days after that.

Exactly 30 days after the trial court’s granting of wife’s motion to alter, amend, or vacate, the husband filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, stating that he “was in no state of mind to properly defend himself or realize the legal implications of not filing an answer at the time he was served with the summons and complaint.” He stated that he had undergone residential treatment for alcohol abuse and depression in the months leading up to the wife’s service of process on him and that he was continuing outpatient treatment during the time he was served.

After a hearing on the husband’s motion, the trial court instructed both parties to submit affidavits on the issue of whether the division of marital assets was equitable, and each party did so. Soon afterward, the trial court denied the husband’s motion without opinion.

On appeal, the husband argued in the alternative, either that (a) his motion was a timely filed Rule 55( c ) motion (must be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment) or that (b) his motion was a timely filed Rule 60(b) motion (must be filed within a reasonable time and not more than four months after the judgment). The husband argued that his motion was filed within 30 days of the court’s AMENDED judgment and therefore qualified under 55( c ). The Appeals Court rejected this argument, but it ruled that the husband had succeeded in filing a valid Rule 60(b) motion.

Even though the motion didn’t use these words, the Appeals Court ruled that the husband had in effect argued that he was entited to relief because of “excusable neglect,” one of the grounds for relief in Rule 60(b). And in cases seeking Rule 60(b) relief, the Appeals Court said, the trial court must not only consider excusable neglect. It must apply the factors in Kirkland v. Fort Morgan Authority Sewer Service, Inc., 524 So. 2d 600 (Ala. 1988):

“Under Kirtland, the trial court must first presume that cases should be decided on the merits whenever it is practicable to do so. … Second, the trial court must apply a three-factor analysis in determining whether to set aside a default judgment: it must consider ‘1) whether the defendant has a meritorious defense; 2) whether the plaintiff will be unfairly prejudiced if the default judgment is set aside; and 3) whether the default judgment was a result of the defendant’s own culpable conduct.’ Kirtland, 524 So. 2d at 605.”
Sampson v. Cansler, 726 So. 2d 632, 633 (Ala. 1998). (emphasis added).

Because the trial court’s order did not “affirmatively indicate that the trial court considered the Kirkland factors,” the Appeals Court reversed and remanded with instructions to apply the Kirkland factors.