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Bryant v. Wahl

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District

August 2, 2016

JEFFREY WAHL, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Kenneth R. Garrett III, Judge

          Before Division Two: Karen King Mitchell, Presiding Judge, Cynthia L. Martin, Judge and Gary D. Witt, Judge

          GARY D. WITT, JUDGE

         Appellant Jeffrey Wahl ("Wahl") appeals the judgment of the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri, denying his Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment. The Order of Default was entered against Wahl in a civil lawsuit filed by Respondents Carl and Pamela Bryant (collectively "Bryants"). The Bryants alleged that Wahl, their neighbor, unexpectedly entered their home and shot them both multiple times. The suit sought monetary damages for their injuries. Wahl failed to respond to the petition and a default judgment was entered. The trial court, in denying Wahl's Motion to Set Aside, found that Wahl failed to meet the requirements of Rule 74.05(d)[1] in that Wahl (1) failed to prove that he had a meritorious defense and (2) failed to show good cause to set aside the default judgment. Wahl now appeals, challenging both of these findings as well as the constitutionality of Rules 74.05(a) and (b). We affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Wahl was arrested on January 21, 2014, by the Independence Police Department, and charged with the shootings of Carl and Pamela Bryant. On the morning of January 21, Wahl entered the Bryants' home and confronted Carl Bryant with a gun. The two argued, and Wahl shot both the Bryants multiple times. Both suffered life threatening injuries. The criminal complaint filed by the State against Wahl alleged two counts each of First-Degree Assault and Armed Criminal Action.

         On January 24, 2014, the Bryants filed a civil case against Wahl seeking damages for their injuries as a result of the shootings ("Petition"). Wahl was served with the Petition while being held in the Jackson County Detention Center on February 21, 2014. He filed no response to the Petition.

         On February 26, 2014, Wahl was determined to be incompetent and unable to stand trial in the underlying criminal case. The court ordered him committed to the Department of Mental Health in Fulton, Missouri. The judge in the civil case was not the same judge as was assigned the criminal case and there is no indication that the court in the civil proceeding was aware of this determination of incompetency.

         During the course of the civil case, Wahl was served with certain pleadings, either at the Jackson County Detention Center or the Fulton State Hospital, but other pleadings were sent to his home address and returned undeliverable.[2] A Motion for Default Judgment was filed on April 1, 2014, a copy of which was served to Wahl. Wahl never responded to the civil case or notified the court of his change in address. On May 27, 2014, the trial court granted a Default Judgment against Wahl, awarding $5 million to Pamela Bryant and $5 million to Carl Bryant ("Judgment"). Following the Judgment, the Bryants executed on approximately $90, 938.00 in funds confiscated from Wahl's home at the time of his arrest.

         Wahl did not have legal representation in the civil case. He was represented by an Assistant Public Defender ("PD") in the pending criminal case. PD informed the Bryants' attorney that, as a public defender, PD was statutorily prohibited from representing Wahl in the civil proceeding. It is alleged that the Bryants' attorney was aware that Wahl had been determined to be incompetent to stand trial and committed to the Department of Mental Health. In fact, the Bryants served Wahl with notice of certain filings at the Fulton State Hospital.

         In April, 2015, PD left his position as a public defender. No longer statutorily barred from representing Wahl in the civil matter, PD entered his appearance on behalf of Wahl and filed a Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment on May 24, 2015 ("Motion"). In the Motion, Wahl alleged that his mental incompetency was good cause for failing to respond to the Petition and attempted to raise two meritorious defenses to the Petition--error in the Petition's date of the attack and self-defense. Additionally, Wahl sought a declaratory judgment that the Supreme Court Rules 74.05(a) and (b), which govern default judgments, are facially unconstitutional and unconstitutional as applied to Wahl because they provide no additional protections to incompetent persons.

         The trial court determined that Wahl failed to properly verify or otherwise support his Motion with sworn testimony and denied the Motion without evidentiary hearing. Wahl filed a Motion to Reconsider on June 16, 2015, which the court also denied.

         This appeal follows.

         Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Rule 74.05(d), a motion to set aside a default judgment is an "independent action, " and, as such, a judgment granting or denying such a motion is a final judgment eligible for immediate appellate review. Saturn of Tiffany Springs v. McDaris, 331 S.W.3d 704, 708-09 (Mo. App. W.D. 2011). The denial of a motion to set aside is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Brungard v. Risky's Inc., 240 S.W.3d 685, 686 (Mo. banc 2007). A trial court abuses its discretion if the "ruling is clearly against the logic of the circumstances then before the trial court and is so unreasonable and arbitrary that the ruling shocks the sense of justice and indicates a lack of careful deliberate consideration." Peters v. Gen. Motors Corp., 200 S.W.3d 1, 23 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006). While the trial court has broad discretion in deciding to set aside a default judgment, its discretion to deny such a motion is "narrowed" because public policy favors cases to be decided on the merits. Coble v. NCI Bldg. Sys., Inc., 378 S.W.3d 443, 447 (Mo. App. W.D. 2012)).

         Discussi ...

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