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Evidence at Yesterday's Hearing Suggests That Jessica Garrison's $3.5-million Default Judgment is Void

Posted on the 19 June 2015 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler

Evidence at yesterday's hearing suggests that Jessica Garrison's $3.5-million default judgment is voidNo final order was issued yesterday at a hearing on a motion to vacate a $3.5-million default judgment  against me in the Jessica Medeiros Garrison defamation case. But evidence strongly suggests the judgment already is void.
My presence was not required, so I was not at the Jefferson County Courthouse. But my attorney, Davy Hay, provided a general rundown of what took place. Hay and Garrison's lawyer, Bill Baxley, apparently engaged in spirited argument about a number of issues regarding the default judgment, but Hay drove home what might be the single most important argument--from a simple procedural standpoint, Garrison's default judgment appears to be void.
On top of that, Hay argued, the court incorrectly applied a "private person" status to Garrison, even though she appears to be a public figure who has engaged in high-profile, public matters for roughly a decade. That means the court should have used an "actual malice" standard to address the alleged defamation.
Circuit Judge Don Blankenship has been off the bench recently because of eye surgery, so he conducted the hearing via telephone, with the two lawyers speaking from the courtroom. It's not known when Blankenship will make a ruling.
What points to Garrison's default judgment being void? The record shows that she filed a Motion for Default on January 6, 2015. On January 13, 2015, the court entered an order granting the motion. In between those two dates, there is nothing in the record to show the plaintiff made any effort to notify me of her application for default.
As we showed in a post earlier this week, Alabama law requires that the opposing party receive at least three days written notice of a default application. The law suggests it must be actual notice, with completed service. Here is how we summarized the law:
Despite whatever arguments Baxley comes up with, the facts and law already point to the default judgment being void, based on a case styled Abernathy v. Green Tree Servicing, (Ala. Civ. App., 2010). Abernathy focuses on the notice required for parties seeking default judgments. From the ruling:
Abernathy contends, among other things, that Green Tree did not provide her with appropriate notice of its November 12, 2009, application for a default judgment and that, as a result, the trial court erred when it entered the November 13, 2009, default judgment. Specifically, she argues that Rule 55(b)(2), Ala. R. Civ. P., required that her attorney be given three days' written notice before the entry of the November 13, 2009, default judgment and that the failure to provide such notice constitutes reversible error. We agree.

The Abernathy case goes on to state that failure to give proper notice "renders the default judgment void" and "requires vacation of the default judgment."
Not only did I not receive notice, the record apparently shows that the plaintiff or her representatives never sent it. Under the law, that should make yesterday's other arguments moot.
As for those other arguments, Attorney Hay said Baxley entered a dozen or more exhibits that purported to show I have an ongoing disregard for the justice system. Apparently they were copies of court orders from other cases, or news reports from other cases; it was hard, Hay said, to tell exactly what they contained. It perhaps is even harder to determine how they would be relevant to the Garrison case. Without seeing the exhibits, I can't say much about them. But I can say for certain that any insinuation I have a habit of disregarding the court system is false.
Heck, if anything, the justice system has shown disrespect for me. After all, an Alabama judge (Baxley friend Claud Neilson) essentially ordered me kidnapped, leading to a five-month incarceration that violates more than 200 years of First Amendment law--and that played a major role in the Garrison-case default judgment, as did a foreclosure (which I believe likely was unlawful) on our home of 25 years.
It should be noted that Baxley filed no written response, in advance, to our Motion to Vacate--and the dubious exhibits apparently were the only "hard copy" material he filed with the court. Should the exhibits, which appear to have no connection to the Garrison case, be kicked out as irrelevant? Sure looks that way from here.
The two-pronged "Kirtland" test, which is central to having a default judgment overturned, involves a showing of a meritorious defense. The test comes from a case styled Kirtland v. Fort Morgan Authority Sewer Service Inc., 524 So. 2d 600 (Ala. Sup. Ct., 1988). Baxley apparently argued that the defaulting party must submit affidavits or exhibits to show a meritorious defense, but Alabama case law does not appear to say that. From the Kirtland case:
The rationale behind the meritorious-defense requirement is that evidence of a defense indicates that the outcome of the case could be different if it were disposed of by a trial on the merits rather than by a default judgment and, therefore, justifies reopening the case so that justice can be done. . . .
The allegations set forth in the answer and in the motion must be more than mere bare legal conclusions without factual support; they must counter the cause of action averred in the complaint with specificity— namely, by setting forth relevant legal grounds substantiated by a credible factual basis. Such allegations would constitute a "plausible defense."

A case styled Ex parte Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, 514 So. 2d 1283 (Ala. Sup. Ct., 1988) puts it in even simpler terms:
To meet the meritorious-defense element, the movant need not satisfy the trial court that the movant would necessarily prevail at a trial on the merits, only that the movant is prepared to present a plausible defense.

Our Motion to Vacate asserts the ultimate defense in a defamation case--the truth of my reporting. And it states that I have evidence, and can obtain additional evidence via discovery, that more than amounts to a "plausible defense."
The first prong of the Kirtland test is perhaps the most important, A trial court must act with an understanding that default judgments are disfavored under the law, and any close call should come down on the side of ordering a trial on the merits:
The Alabama Constitution and our past opinions construing the default judgment rule support the conclusion that the interest in preserving a litigant's right to a trial on the merits is paramount and, therefore, outweighs the interest of promoting judicial economy. We have repeatedly held that the trial court's use of its discretionary authority should be resolved in favor of the defaulting party where there is doubt as to the propriety of the default judgment. Johnson v. Moore, 514 So.2d 1343 (Ala. 1987). . .
We, therefore, emphatically hold that a trial court, in determining whether to grant or to deny a motion to set aside a default judgment, should exercise its broad discretionary powers with liberality and should balance the equities of the case with a strong bias toward allowing the defendant to have his day in court."

In this case, there isn't much doubt about the default judgment. The evidence indicates it is void, on procedural grounds. In terms of case law, my right to a trial on the merits is paramount and should demand that the default judgment be set aside.
As the defendant, I am due my day in court. Blankenship's order, whenever it comes, should uphold Alabama law on that point.

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