Void Default Judgment Should Have Been Vacated Under Rule 60(b)(4)

Where a defendant was not served with process, a default judgment entered against her was void for lack of personal jurisdiction. The trial court should have granted her motion to vacate that judgment under Rule 60(b)(4). The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the lower court and ordered the default judgment vacated. Dennis v. Still Waters Residential Ass’n, No. 2071064 (Ala. Civ. App. Mar. 20, 2009).

A residential association sued a defendant for money owed. The defendant argued that she had not been served with process. The record showed that, indeed, process had been delivered to, and signed in the name of, someone other than the defendant. When the defendant did not answer the complaint, the residential association obtained a default judgment against her, and attempted to execute on that judgment.

The defendant filed a motion under Rule 60(b)(4) to vacate the default judgment. Because she had not been served with process, she argued, the trial court never acquired jurisdiction over her and the default judgment was void. The circuit court denied her motion and the defendant appealed.

The Court of Civil Appeals reversed. The court began by explaining that rulings under Rule 60(b)(4) are reviewed under a de novo standard. Moreover:

The standard of review on appeal from the denial of relief under Rule 60(b)(4) is not whether there has been an abuse of discretion. When the grant or denial of relief turns on the validity of the judgment, as under Rule 60(b)(4), discretion has no place. If the judgment is valid, it must stand; if it is void, it must be set aside.

The default judgment in this case was void, as the defendant argued, because she had not been served with process. When service "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." The residential association had not shown this. It had not proved that service had been made in any of the ways prescribed by Rule 4 of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure. Consequently, the trial court had not acquired personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The default judgment it entered against her was void, and the lower court erred by failing to vacate that order under Rule 60(b)(4).

The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the lower court’s order, and directed that the default judgment be vacated.