Motion to set aside default judgment may be denied by operation of law where motion is not properly supported

In Carroll v. Williams, [Ms. 1060832], (Ala. Sept. 12, 2008), the Alabama Supreme Court held that "[b]ecause Carroll has failed to satisfy his initial burden under Kirtland, we wil not hold the trial court in error for allowing Carroll’s motion to set aside the default judgment to be denied by operation of law without having applied the Kirtland analysis."  Slip Op. p. 10.

In Carroll, the trial court entered a default judgment against Carroll in favor of Williams on a cross-claim.  Carroll filed a Rule 55 motion seeking to have the default judgment set aside, arguing only that he had a meritorious legal defense.  Carroll, however, provided no evidence other than a copy of a release from a related claim and argument.  The trial court failed to rule on the motion within 90 days, and it was denied by operation of law.

Carroll argued on appeal that the trial court erred by failing to apply the analysis required by Kirtland v. Fort Morgan Authority Sewer Service, Inc,, 524 So. 2d 600 (Ala. 1988).  Under Kirtland, a trial court has broad discretion whether to set aside a default judgment, and must consider (1) whether the defendant has a meritorious defense, (2) whether the plaintiff will be unfairly prejudiced if the default is set aside, and (3) whether the default was the result of the defendant’s own culpable conduct.  Slip Op. p. 8.

The Court noted that the default party has the initial burden of demonstrating the Kirtland factors.  Here, the only Kirtland factor addressed by the defaulting party was the meritorious defense element.  Carroll did not argue that the plaintiff would not be prejudiced or that the default was not the result of its own culpable conduct.  Thus, the only relevant factor was whether Carroll had a meritorious defense.

With regard to the meritorious defense, the defaulting party must show that the "allegations in an answer or in a motion to set aside the default judgment and its supporting affidavits, if proven at trial, would constitute a complete defense to the action, or when sufficient evidence has been adduced either by way of affidavit or by some other means to warrant submission of the case to the jury." Slip. Op. p. 9, quoting Kirtland, 524 So. 2d at 606 (emphasis added by Court).  Further, the allegations "in the answer and in the motion must be more than mere bare legal conclusions without factual support." Slip. Op. p. 9, quoting Kirtland, 524 So. 2d at 606 (emphasis added by Court).

The Court found that the submission filed by Carroll failed to meet its initial burden under Kirtland.  Thus, because Carroll had not met its initial burden, the Court declined to hold the trial court in error for failing to engage in a Kirtland analysis.