Unopposed Motion for Default Judgment Doesn't Guarantee a Win

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 30, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The holidays are a time of giving. This week, California's Fourth Appellate District Court was truly in the giving spirit as it handed out tips to attorneys for ways to avoid attorney sanctions for sloppy lawyering.

In fact, the appellate court had so many words of wisdom for attorneys and judges alike in this case of three cautionary tales, that we've decided divvy up the fun for you over the next few days.

The first lucky advisees? Plaintiffs' attorneys.

Picture this: You file a $30 million lawsuit against six defendants. The defendants don't respond. You file a motion for default judgment. You're rich!

Except that you're not.

If you've been coasting through your career, relying upon default judgments to pay the rent, now's the time to stop. The Fourth Appellate District says that a motion for default judgment is not an opportunity to win big bucks with little effort.

If a defendant does not submit a timely response to a complaint, the first course of action should be to offer a continuance. (It's not mandatory; it's just good form.) Second, the plaintiff should review the complaint to determine whether it supports the specific judgment the attorney is seeking.

A plaintiff won't automatically win a motion for default judgment just because he was the only party to file in a case; Gil Kim learned this lesson the hard way. The Fourth Appellate District found that the factual allegations of Kim's $30 million complaint did not support any judgment in his favor.

Even if the facts had been on Kim's side, the court said Kim's motion for default judgment should not have been automatically granted simply due to the defendant's procedural default; Kim would still have to prove damages with actual evidence. (Here, he did not)

Don't worry, plaintiffs' attorneys: The Fourth Appellate District has plenty of criticism to spread around. Check back on Friday to learn how appellate attorneys can find themselves in hot water with California courts.

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