Justices split, affirm trial court in defamation default judgment case 

A split Indiana Supreme Court on Friday granted transfer and affirmed a trial court’s ruling in a default judgment dispute involving alleged defamation and false reporting, siding with a dissenting appellate court judge.

In the case of Dawn Riddle and Matthew Riddle v. Dennis Cress, Haley Wilkerson, and Helen Cress, 20S-PL-573, Dawn and Matthew Riddle sued Dennis and Helen Cress and the Cresses’ granddaughter, Haley Wilkerson, alleging that certain statements Wilkerson made to the Department of Child Services constituted defamation and false reporting.

Summonses and a complaint were served on the Cresses in November 2018 and on Wilkerson in December 2018. However, the defendants did not enter appearances or respond to the complaint, and the trial court granted default judgment to the Riddles in January 2019.

The next month, counsel entered an appearance for the defendants and moved for relief from default judgment under Trial Rule 60(B)(1), arguing that various personal complications defendants experienced during the fall and winter of 2018 prevented them from responding to the complaint.

A trial court subsequently entered an order granting the defendants relief from the default judgment and finding “[w]hile Plaintiffs debunked most of the specific reasons Defendants set forth, the Court was nonetheless left with the impression that Defendants, unsophisticated and unrepresented by counsel, were sincerely confused about their obligation to respond.”

The Indiana Court of Appeals divided in the case, with the majority concluding the Johnson Superior court abused its discretion by setting aside the default judgment. But a majority of Supreme Court justices on Friday sided with dissenting appellate judge Patricia Riley, who would have affirmed the trial court under the deferential standard of review.

“We find the standard of review dispositive here,” the high court majority wrote in a per curiam opinion. “The trial court rejected most of the personal circumstances Defendants cited in their motion for relief from judgment — including the Cresses’ auto accident and Chapter 13 bankruptcy and Wilkerson’s knee injury and household move — as insufficient to establish excusable neglect. But it also heard evidence that Plaintiffs had a long history of sending harassing letters and purported legal documents to the Cresses and other family members, supporting the conclusion that Defendants were sincere in their confusion as to whether they needed to respond to this complaint. The trial court’s assessments of the parties’ credibility and demeanor are the type of fact-sensitive judgments that may not be second-guessed under the deferential standard of appellate review and, here, are sufficient to establish at least ‘slight evidence’ of excusable neglect.”

Thus, having granted transfer and affirming the trial court, the justices remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented, believing transfer should be denied.

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