Say you successfully filed your commercial litigation action before the deadline imposed by the statute of limitations. Subsequently, the other side did… nothing, and the deadline for filing a response has passed. So… that’s it, you win, you’re “home free” and you can get all of the damages that you were seeking, right? Not necessarily. Getting to that successful outcome requires more. Even when a defendant refuses to respond, your case still requires keen attention to detail and careful dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s in order to maximize your success. For that (and many other) reasons, having legal representation from a skilled Atlanta commercial litigation attorney from the very start can help you get the most out of your lawsuit.
There are actually several steps that you must undertake – and complete properly – in order to achieve a full success in a case where the defendant takes no action. Failing to complete any step with the precision required by the law and the rules of procedure can potentially do great damage – or completely ruin – your case.
A recent federal case from here in North Georgia is an example of a plaintiff’s case done right. The plaintiff was an Indianapolis-based staffing firm seeking substantial damages from a New York-based merchandising company following a dispute over a project in Georgia.
Once you’ve properly filed, one of the next steps is to “serve” the defendant(s) you named in your case with a summons and a copy of the complaint. There are several technical requirements that go into serving defendants and it is very important to meet all those technical obligations precisely, and to document all of it. Even a minute flaw in completing the service step can delay or completely derail your case. In the staffing firm’s breach of contract case, its service of the merchandise company was valid, so that hurdle was cleared.
The next step is to await the defense’s response. The defense generally has 20 days to file an answer to your complaint. In the staffing firm’s case, that deadline was April 8, 2020, but April 8 came and went with no filing from the merchandise company.
A ‘Clerk’s Entry of Default’ and a default judgment: they’re not the same
If that happens to you, then you can file what’s called a “Clerk’s Entry of Default.” The staffing firm in this federal case sought such an entry and got it on the same day, which was April 16, 2020. It is important to understand what a clerk’s entry of default is or, more to the point, what it is not. Getting a clerk’s entry of default does not mean you have obtained a default judgment in your favor. There’s more you have to do to achieve that.
Specifically, you have to make a motion asking the judge to enter a default judgment in your favor. Getting this motion granted is not automatic. The complaint you filed back at the beginning of the case must lay out “an adequate legal basis to find that the defendant is liable.” If it does so, then a default judgment in your favor is appropriate.
Even in a default judgment case, you still have to show you’re entitled to damages
Even after the judge grants a default judgment in your favor, your case isn’t over yet. The court will not just automatically give you all of the damages you requested solely because you have a default judgment in hand. The court still “has an obligation to assure that there is a legitimate basis for any damage award it enters,” so you still have a need to establish that the damages you’ve requested were warranted in your case. Sometimes, though not always, you may have to go before the judge and present your case for damages to the court in a hearing.
In the Indiana company’s case, it presented to the court a copy of a valid contract that called for the staffing firm to provide contract employees to the merchandise company and for the New York-based company to pay the staffing firm for the contract employees’ labor. The staffing firm also provided proof of sums that it invoiced to the merchandise company and were properly payable under the terms of the contract, but were never paid.
In sum, the staffing firm cleared each of its hurdles with the accuracy, detail and specificity the law required, both on the liability side of the case and the damages side. So, not only did the court award a default judgment to the staffing firm, the judge also awarded it more than $970,000 in damages.
What you can take away from this case is that, even when a case may seem simple through the eyes of a layperson, it is something that often still involves many legal and procedural technicalities and complexities. When you have an eminently winnable case – such as a contract dispute where the other side has defaulted – the last thing you want is for a technical procedural misstep to cost you some or all of the damages that you otherwise would have received. To make sure you’re getting everything from your case that you should, rely on the skilled commercial litigation attorneys at Poole Huffman, LLC to provide the knowledgeable and effective representation your case deserves. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (404) 373-4008 to schedule your confidential consultation.