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Separate notice argument not enough to vacate small claims judgment

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A business’s argument that it should have been served with a separate notice of a small claims action was rejected by the Indiana Court of Appeals Friday.

The appeals court affirmed a denial of KOA Properties LLC’s motion to set aside default judgment. In KOA Properties LLC v Laura Matheison, 48A04-1207-SC-365, the Court of Appeals ruled that KOA failed to establish the lower court abused its discretion by denying the business’s motion because the trial court did not have personal jurisdiction.

A default judgment for $4,300 plus court costs was entered against KOA in February 2012. In a dispute over a lease, Laura Matheison had filed a notice of small claim against “Todd Culp, KOA Properties LLC aka/Woodpoint.” The notice was sent by certified mail and Culp, owner and property manager of KOA, accepted it.

However Culp did not open the certified mail and neither he nor KOA appeared at the small claims hearing. The court subsequently entered a default judgment against Culp.

Culp successfully argued that he had been improperly named individually in the suit because KOA is an LLC. The trial court then vacated the judgment against Culp but refused to set aside the judgment against KOA because the business had not shown it had a “good and valid defense.”

KOA’s motion to vacate the default judgment was denied by the trial court. In its appeal, KOA asserted the small claims court did not have personal jurisdiction over KOA because the business was not listed as a separate party defendant on the notice of the claim and KOA was not separately served with the notice.  

The COA disagreed. It ruled KOA was listed as a separate defendant because the notice of the claim clearly included KOA as a party defendant, and the address listed on the notice of the claim was KOA’s address and Culp was the acknowledged owner and property manager of KOA.

Further the Court of Appeals observed that separate service would have been sent to the same address and directed to the same person, Todd Culp.

“We cannot agree with KOA that when Culp accepted the certified mailing addressed to ‘Todd Culp (KOA Properties LLC)’ at KOA’s business address there was a total failure to serve process on KOA,” Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote for the court. “… KOA was provided with service reasonably calculated to inform KOA that a small claims action had been instituted against it.”

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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

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