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COA rules against bank in lien dispute

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Wells Fargo Bank could not convince the Indiana Court of Appeals to reverse default judgment entered against it in favor of two companies trying to foreclose on mechanic’s liens. The court also had a warning for litigants when filing amended complaints.

John E. Smith Builders Inc. and Isley’s Plumbing Inc. performed work on the home of Heather Stone after it sustained damage in a fire. Her home was mortgaged through Washington Mutual. The mortgage was later acquired by JP Morgan Chase Bank in 2008.

Smith Builders filed a complaint to foreclose on its mechanic’s lien on the homeowner’s property; Isley filed a cross-claim seeking to foreclose on its claimed mechanic’s lien. Smith Builders later entered bankruptcy and Edward Echert was substituted as a party in interest.

The trial court granted default judgments in October 2012 in favor of Dechert and Isley and against Washington Mutual and determined Isley’s mechanic’s lien held priority over Dechert’s. In April 2013, the mortgage was transferred to Wells Fargo, which sought to have the judgment set aside under Trial Rule 60(B)(4).

In Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Edward P. Dechert, Trustee of the Bankruptcy Estate of John E. Smith and Isley's Plumbing, Inc., 34A02-1311-PL-980, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, rejecting the bank’s claim that Dechert’s decision to file a second amended complaint and Isley’s response to that complaint resulted in the automatic vacation of the default judgments entered against the bank. None of the amended pleadings undermined any basis upon which the default judgments against the bank were issued.

The judges also rejected Wells Fargo’s claims that certain pleadings were not properly served upon the bank and that default judgments should be set aside because Indiana courts disfavor default judgments and windfalls.
 
“However, we note that Dechert’s decision to file the first amended complaint was inappropriate,’’ Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote. “Here, where service had been accomplished, the appropriate procedure for Dechert to follow was to establish that service of process (in whatever form) had been completed upon Washington Mutual, and then to move for default judgment under Trial Rule 55—without filing a complaint alleging additional facts not necessary to proof of the merits of the case. Because the allegations in the first amended complaint do not differ on the elements of the causes of action, there was fair notice of Dechert’s claims upon which the trial court could enter a default judgment, and there was a nine-month delay between that judgment and Wells Fargo’s appearance in the case.

“Parties who pursue a similar procedure may not find themselves in a similar position, however, particularly with respect to changes in substantive allegations entitling a party to relief. Litigants are, therefore, warned accordingly.”
 

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