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Dawson v. Britagna

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 2, 2016

BRIAN DAWSON
v.
JESSICA BRITAGNA

Submitted on briefs December 15, 2015

Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New London, Hon. Robert C. Leuba, judge trial referee [denial of motion to open].

James Colin Mulholland, filed a brief for the appellant (defendant).

Gruendel, Alvord and Mullins, Js.

OPINION

ALVORD, J.

The defendant, Jessica Britagna, appeals from the judgment of the trial court denying her motion to open a default judgment rendered in favor of the plaintiff, Brian Dawson. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court improperly failed to conclude that the default judgment was ‘‘void as a matter of law’’ because (1) the plaintiff failed to follow proper procedures in obtaining the judgment, and (2) the court granted relief on a claim or cause of action not alleged in the complaint. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The plaintiff commenced this action against the defendant on May 20, 2010. In his one count complaint, he alleged breach of contract and sought ‘‘[f]air, just and reasonable money damages’’ and ‘‘[s]uch other and further relief as the [c]ourt finds just and equitable.’’ The defendant filed an appearance on June 18, 2010.

From that point, the case has had a convoluted procedural history. On August 22, 2011, the plaintiff filed a certificate of closed pleadings and a claim for the trial list, even though the defendant had not filed a responsive pleading to the complaint. On October 26, 2011, the plaintiff filed a motion for default against the defendant for her failure to appear, which was denied by the court clerk on November 3, 2011, for the reason that an appearance had been filed on June 18, 2010. On November 7, 2011, the plaintiff filed a ‘‘Motion for Default and Judgment for Failure to Answer and to Plead, ’’ which was denied by the court clerk as being an ‘‘improper’’ motion. The notice of denial contained the following statement: ‘‘Please see § 17-32 of the Connecticut Practice Book for the proper order and timing of motions.’’

On December 7, 2011, the plaintiff filed a motion for default against the defendant for her failure to plead, which was granted by the court clerk on December 20, 2011. On January 3, 2012, the plaintiff filed a motion for judgment. The court, Hon. Joseph J. Purtill, judge trial referee, denied that motion with the following explanation: ‘‘Judgment cannot be entered without an affidavit or other evidence of damages.’’ The plaintiff’s affidavit thereafter was filed with the court, and a hearing in damages was held on February 28, 2012. Judge Purtill granted the plaintiff’s motion for judgment: ‘‘Default having been entered against [the] defendant on [December 20, 2011] after hearing and based upon [the] affidavit, judgment is entered against [the] defendant in the amount of $70, 000, together with costs.’’ A court generated notice of the order and judgment was sent to all parties of record on February 29, 2012.[1]

On July 30, 2014, more than two years after the default judgment was rendered, the defendant filed a motion to open and vacate the judgment on the ground that ‘‘it is void as a matter of law.’’ The plaintiff filed an objection to the defendant’s motion, with a supporting memorandum of law, on September 12, 2014. On September 29, 2014, the court, Hon. Robert C. Leuba, judge trial referee, denied the defendant’s motion on the ground that it was ‘‘filed after the time provided by rule, ’’ and sustained the plaintiff’s objection to that motion. The defendant appealed from the court’s orders on October 16, 2014. That same day, the defendant filed a motion to reargue the court’s orders, to which the plaintiff filed an objection on October 27, 2014. On November 5, 2014, the court sent the following notice to the parties: ‘‘The motion for reargument is granted. The matter will be set down for a hearing at which time both parties may be heard in argument on the issues raised by the defendant in her motion.’’

Following a hearing, Judge Leuba entered the following order on December 4, 2014, and court generated notices were sent to the parties: ‘‘After hearing the arguments of the parties on the Motion to Set Aside the Judgment in this matter, the court has reconsidered the prior ruling in light of said arguments and all of the filings in the file relating to the same. After such reconsideration, the court affirms the denial of the motion. The court does not find the judgment void. The motion was not timely filed.’’

The defendant filed an amended appeal on December 17, 2014, to include the court’s ruling on her motion for reargument. On February 11, 2015, pursuant to Practice Book §§ 64-1 and 6-1, Judge Leuba filed a memorandum of decision on the defendant’s motion to open the judgment. In that decision, the court set forth the procedural background of the case, the defendant’s claims with respect to alleged pleading irregularities in obtaining the default judgment, the defendant’s claim that the relief granted by the court had not been sought in the complaint, a detailed analysis of all of the defendant’s claims, the court’s conclusion that the default judgment was not void, and the court’s determination that the defendant’s motion to open and vacate the judgment had not been timely filed.

I

We first address the defendant’s claim that the ‘‘plaintiff’s failure to follow proper procedures in obtaining his default judgment’’ rendered the default judgment ‘‘void as a matter of law.’’ We begin with the general rule applicable to our review of a trial court’s determination on a motion to open a judgment. ‘‘The principles that govern motions to open or set aside a civil judgment are well established. A motion to open and vacate a judgment . . . is addressed to the [trial] court’s discretion, and the action of the trial court will not be disturbed on appeal unless it acted unreasonably and in clear abuse of its discretion. . . . In determining whether the trial court abused its discretion, this court ...


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