Court of Civil Appeals States Standard Governing Review of Trial Court’s Ruling on Motion to Vacate a Default Judgment

In LVNV Funding, LLC v. Boyles, released last week, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment denying a motion to vacate a default judgment pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4).  The case was handled by Lightfoot, Franklin & White’s own Chips Pruet and Wes Gilchrist and provides a good recent statement of the standard of review governing a ruling on a motion to vacate a default judgment.  

On August 19, 2006, the trial court entered a default judgment against LVNV on the plaintiff’s claims for invasion of privacy, fraud, and deceit in connection with efforts to collect a debt.  On February 15, 2008, LVNV filed a motion pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4) seeking to have the judgment set aside on the basis of insufficient service of process.  On January 7, 2009, the trial court denied that motion.  In its analysis, the Court of Civil Appeals set forth the applicable standard of review:

In reviewing the ruling of a trial court on a motion to vacate a default judgment on the ground that the judgment was void, this court applies a de novo standard of review.  Discretion plays no part in determing whether a default judgment is void.  If the judgment is valid, it must stand; if it is void, it must be set aside.  Failure of proper service under Rule 4 deprives a court of jurisdiction and renders its judgment void.  When the service of process on a defendant is contested as being improper or invalid, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove that service of process was performed correctly and legally. 

Applying this standard, the court found that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that LVNV had been properly served.  As a result, the default judgment was void and the trial court erred in denying LVNV’s motion.