In an earlier post, we explained that the Westchester Commercial Division will not grant a motion for a default judgment without reviewing the papers. The Court will first determine whether the plaintiff has made a prima facie showing of its entitlement to a judgment. It is not unusual for the Westchester Commercial Division justices to deny even an unopposed motion for a default on the ground that it is not supported by admissible evidence. Defaulting defendants, however, should not take comfort from this because they will not be relieved of their default without a good explanation.
Energy Reduction Assets, LLC v. Proactive Lighting Solutions, LLC, Index No. 68477/2017, started like the cases discussed in our earlier post: the plaintiffs moved for a default judgment, but Justice Gretchen Walsh denied the unopposed motion. The Court found that the plaintiffs failed to submit sufficient proof of their entitlement to judgment under CPLR 3215(c). “Default judgments are not to be rubber-stamped once jurisdiction and failure to appear are shown,” the Court explained. “Proof must still be submitted to satisfy the Court, at least prima facie, as to the viability of the uncontested cause of action.” Justice Walsh therefore denied the motion without prejudice.
When the plaintiffs made a renewed motion, supported with additional proof, the defaulting defendants appeared and cross-moved to vacate the default. On the plaintiffs’ second attempt, Justice Walsh found that the plaintiffs had met their prima facie burden. But what about the cross-motion to vacate?
This time, it was the defendants who failed to satisfy their burden – or Justice Walsh. A defendant asking a court to vacate a default must offer a reasonable excuse for not answering the complaint. In this case, however, the only excuse offered was that the individual defendant and president of one of the corporate defendants “is not sophisticated with respect to the legal process and did not understand that he had to respond to the Complaint until speaking with…counsel.” In other words, he just didn’t know that he was required to do something when the defendants were served with the pleadings. This, Justice Walsh found, was not sufficient. “Courts have repeatedly held that a party’s ignorance of the law or assertions that the party was unaware as to whether or how to respond to a complaint are not reasonable excuses for purposes of vacating default judgements,” Justice Walsh explained.
Takeaway: The justices of the Westchester Commercial Division will scrutinize default judgment motion papers to ensure compliance on both sides. Plaintiffs won’t get an easy default judgment, and defendants will not be lightly relieved of their defaults.
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