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Hooks v. MHS Hospitality Group, LLC

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

May 30, 2017

EARL HOOKS, Respondent,
v.
MHS HOSPITALITY GROUP, LLC, D/B/A CAPITAL CENTER INN D/B/A CAPITAL INN, ET AL, Appellants.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Marco A. Roldan, Judge

          Before Anthony Rex Gabbert, Presiding Judge, Victor Howard, Judge, Cynthia L. Martin, Judge.

          Anthony Rex Gabbert, Judge.

         MHS Hospitality Group, LLC, and Mukhi Hospitality Group, LLC ("Hospitality Groups" collectively) appeal the circuit court's denials of their Rule 74.05 and Rule 74.06 motions to set aside the court's Order and Judgment which ordered judgment by default in favor of Earl Hooks and against Hospitality Groups on Hooks' Petition for Damages. The Petition alleged that Hooks was severely injured after falling into a hole while an invitee on Hospitality Groups' premises. Hospitality Groups assert three points on appeal. First, they contend that the circuit court erred in summarily denying their Rule 74.06 motion for relief from judgment, because the circuit court's final judgment on the merits, entered as a sanction of default judgment pursuant to Rule 61.01, creates a reversible void judgment when no answer had yet been filed to assert their legal defenses in that it denies them the opportunity to raise their defenses to the allegations in violation of their due process rights. Second, Hospitality Groups contend that the circuit court abused its discretion in summarily denying their Rule 74.06 motion for relief from judgment, entering a final judgment on the merits, and entering a sanction of default judgment pursuant to Rule 61.01, when no answer had yet been filed, arguing that this rendered the judgment a reversible irregular judgment because it is materially contrary to the established civil procedure of filing an answer prior to entering a sanction of striking the pleadings in a case and entering a judgment on the merits. Finally, Hospitality Groups contend that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying their Rule 74.05 motion to set aside default judgment by ruling that Hospitality Groups did not file a motion for relief under Rule 74.06, thereby ignoring Hospitality Groups' demonstration of meritorious defenses and good cause as to the default, in that their now disbarred counsel failed to file an answer and, therefore, their default was not intentionally or recklessly designed to impede the judicial process. We affirm.

         On February 4, 2015, Hooks filed a Petition for Damages against MHS Hospitality Group, LLC, alleging that Hooks was severely injured after falling into a hole while an invitee at the Capital Center Inn which is owned by Hospitality Groups. An amended petition joining Mukhi Hospitality Group, LLC, was filed on March 20, 2015. MHS Hospitality Group, LLC, was served notice of the action on February 12, 2015, and Mukhi Hospitality Group, LLC, was served notice on April 3, 2015. Initial interrogatories were served on each defendant at the same time the petitions and summonses were served. Hooks' First Request for Admissions was served on Hospitality Groups in May of 2015.

         In July of 2015, Hospitality Groups retained counsel to defend the suit. Hospitality Groups' appellate brief states that communication was maintained with defense counsel thereafter, both by email and telephone, regarding the status of the lawsuit. Hospitality Groups avers that, while defense counsel did not formally file an entry of appearance in the matter until February 17, 2016, defense counsel personally appeared before the trial court on behalf of Hospitality Groups throughout the proceedings, including at a case management conference on September 8, 2015. At that conference, the matter was scheduled for jury trial on September 26, 2016.

         Hooks' First Request for Production of Documents and Things was served on Hospitality Groups on October 20, 2015. At that time, Hospitality Groups had responded to none of the previously requested discovery. Hooks' Motion to Enforce Discovery and Suggestions in Support was served that same date. On November 4, 2015, the court entered an order directing Hospitality Groups to answer the opening interrogatories within five days. Hospitality Groups failed to do so.

         Hooks' Second Motion to Enforce Discovery and Suggestions in Support was served on Hospitality Groups on November 9, 2015. On November 23, 2015, the court entered an order directing Hospitality Groups to respond without objection to the requests for production within five days. Hospitality Groups failed to do so.

         Hooks' Motion for Sanctions was served on Hospitality Groups and their defense attorney on December 4, 2015, with copies of the November 3 and November 23 orders attached. The trial court entered an order on December 16, 2015, finding that, Hospitality Groups had violated the November 3 and November 23 orders of the court, Defendant Mukhi had failed to appear at a properly noticed Rule 57.03 deposition thereby prejudicing Hooks, and that the repeated non-compliance with the court's directives amounted to contempt of court warranting sanctions. The court imposed the following Rule 61.01 sanctions:

(1) Defendants, as the disobedient parties, will not be allowed to support liability defenses or oppose liability claims and will be prohibited from introducing liability matters in evidence;
(2) Defendants' failures to obey are treated as a contempt of court;
(3) Both Defendants and the attorney advising Defendants shall pay the reasonable expenses, including attorney's fees, caused by the failures.

         The court entered an order on January 12, 2016, awarding $8, 160 in attorney fees and $206.46 in expenses against Hospitality Groups and their attorney, jointly and severally. The order was served on defense counsel.

         Hooks served a Notice of Hearing on Hospitality Groups and defense counsel on January 21, 2016, for a status hearing on February 17, 2016. Defense counsel, Jimmy E. Allen, Jr., officially entered his appearance at the ...


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