Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wage & Hour Violations Aren't "Personal Inuries" for Default Purposes

Rodriguez v. Cho, No. B256985 (D2d8 May 7, 2015) 

Plaintiff, who cleans offices, filed a wage and hour case against defendant, her employer. The prayer in her complaint demanded damages to be proven at trial and a $10,000 civil penalty. Along with the complaint, she served a “statement of damages” demanding $3.2 million in general, special and punitive damages.  Defendant defaulted.  At the damages prove up, plaintiff’s prove-up documents sought a little less than $300k.  The court ultimately entered a default judgment for about $130k.

Two years later, defendant moved to set aside the default. He contested that he had never been served. He attested to that in a declaration and claimed that plaintiff’s proofs of service were untrue.  And he further provided declarations stating that he had been unable to locate the employee who had allegedly been served and that the company’s agent for service had not received the process. He also argued that the judgment improperly awarded more damages than were pleaded in the complaint.

The trial court denied the motion. It found, first, that defendant had come forward with insufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of sufficient service. And second, that plaintiff did not have to state the damages in the complaint; her “statement of damages” was sufficient to give notice, and thus the damages were not excessive. Defendant appealed.

On the service, the defendant bore the burden of establishing “extrinsic fraud.” To obtain equitable relief on that ground, he must prove three things, in addition to the fraud itself: (1) that he had an otherwise meritorious defense; (2) that he has a satisfactory excuse for not presenting the defense; and (3) that he was diligent in getting the judgment set a side after learning of it. Here, defendant didn’t bear its burden on showing the fraud itself.  Under Evidence Code § 647, a process server’s declaration of service merits a presumption that the facts stated therein are true. None defendant’s evidence was sufficient to rebut that presumption. And in any event, even if fraud could be shown, defendant did not show he had a meritorious defense.

But a motion to set aside a default judgment should nonetheless be set aside when the judgment is void.  In most cases, a default judgment is void if it exceeds the damages prayed in the complaint. See Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §§ 580(a), 585(b). But the rule is different in wrongful death and personal injury cases. In those cases, in order to protect defendants in personal injury and wrongful death actions from adverse publicity resulting from prayers in complaints, particularly malpractice complaints, for greatly inflated damage claims bearing little relation to reasonable expectations of recovery” a plaintiff is not allowed to plead the amount of damages. See § 425.10(b); Plotitsa v. Superior Court, 140 Cal. App. 3d 755, 759 ( 1983). Instead, she must state them in statement of damages that is served on the defendant, but not filed. § 425.11(b). In those cases, the most a default judgment can include is the amount in the statement.

Plaintiff says she served a statement, so that, not her complaint, should be the limit. But her theory has a significant problem. Her case is not a personal injury case, as that term is understood in § 425.11(b). So plaintiff was limited to a default judgment for the amount of damages in her complaint: $10,000.

Reversed and remanded. On remand plaintiff gets to chose between taking a $10,000 judgment and amending her complaint to pray for more money, in which case the default will be vacated.

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