In Louisiana, the plaintiff initiates a civil lawsuit by filing a petition with the Clerk of the Court and serving the defendant with a copy of the petition and citation. The defendant must answer the plaintiffís petition or risk a default judgment. A default judgment is a binding judgment in favor of one party based on the other party’s failure to take action in a case. If the defendant fails to properly respond to a plaintiff’s petition or appear before the court, a skilled litigation attorney will timely move for a default judgment to quickly end the case in plaintiff’s favor without going to trial. However, the defendant is not without recourse. In a 2015 case, the Louisiana Supreme Court held before striking a defendantís deficient answer from the record and entering a default judgment, a Louisiana Trial Court must give both parties an opportunity to be heard, and allow the defendant to correct any deficiencies in his or her answer.
The plaintiff, in this case, Citadel Builders, L.L.C. sued Dirt Worx of Louisiana, L.L.C. for breach of a contract to provide work for its construction project. After serving its citation and petition initiating its case, Citadel obtained a preliminary default judgment. Dirt Worx then filed a letter to the Clerk of Court denying all of Citadelís claims. The Clerk of Court filed Dirt Worx letter as an Answer to Original Petition. A few months later, Citadel sent a letter to Dirt Worx, stating that it intended to file a motion to confirm the default judgment. Citadel explained that it did not receive Dirt Worx’s letter; Dirt Worx’s letter did not meet the requirements of an answer under the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure; and even if it did meet the requirements of an answer, Dirt Worx’s letter was filed by a non-lawyer in violation of the Louisiana Revised Statutes.
Citadel followed up on its letter by filing two pleadings with the court: a motion to strike Dirt Worx’s answer, and a motion for final default judgment. The Trial Court granted Citadel’s motion to strike Dirt Work’s answer, ordered Dirt Worx’s answer to be stricken from the record, and rendered a default judgment of $1,256,205.39 plus interest in Citadel’s favor. The Trial Court ruled on Citadel’s motion ex parte (without Dirt Worx being present or allowing it to be heard on the matter).
Dirt Worx appealed the default judgment arguing that the Trial Court erroneously struck its answer without a contradictory hearing. The Louisiana Fifth Court of Appeal affirmed the Trial Courtís confirmation of the default judgment. The Court of Appeal found that Dirt Worxís letter sufficiently responded to Citadelís petition as to constitute an answer, despite its technical deficiencies. It held that the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure requires a Trial Court to conduct a contradictory hearing prior to striking a party’s answer. However, in this case, it found the Trial Court’s failure to do so, in this case, was harmless. The Court of Appeal considered that the Trial Court’s error did not affect the merits of the case because Dirt Worx’s answer was filed by its non-lawyer registered agent in violation of the Louisiana Revised Statutes. Dirt Worx then took the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and vacated the default judgment, finding that the Trial Court’s failure to conduct a contradictory hearing was harmful to Dirt Worx’s case. It held that the Trial Court’s error, in this case, was harmful because a default judgment should not have been rendered while Dirt Worx could have corrected the deficiencies in its answer and defended its case.
A more in-depth discussion of the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling is provided in the following post.
Additional Sources: CITADEL BUILDERS, L.L.C. VERSUS DIRT WORX OF LOUISIANA, L.L.C
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer Noah Al-Malt
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