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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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