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Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center v. Malley

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

April 2, 2019

SAINT FRANCIS HOSPITAL AND MEDICAL CENTER
v.
EDWARD MALLEY ET AL.

          Argued January 8, 2019

         Procedural History

         Action to collect adebt, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain, where the court, Young, J., rendered judgment for the plaintiff in accordance with a stipulation of the parties as against the named defendant; thereafter, the court rendered a default judgment against the defendant Tracy Malley, from which the defendant Tracy Malley appealed to this court. Reversed; further proceedings.

          Michael S. Taylor, with whom was Brendon P. Lev-esque, for the appellant (defendant Tracy Malley).

          Alvord, Sheldon and Eveleigh, Js.

          OPINION

          EVELEIGH, J.

         The defendant Tracy Malley[1] appeals from the default judgment rendered against her in favor of the plaintiff, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, in this action to collect a debt for unpaid medical expenses incurred by Edward Malley. On appeal, the defendant claims that there was no basis for the entry of a default against her, and, therefore, the rendering of the default judgment was improper.[2] The plaintiff, who prevailed before the trial court, did not file a brief, therefore, this appeal was considered on the basis of the defendant's brief, argument, appendix and record only. We agree with the defendant and reverse the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of the defendant's claim on appeal. In June, 2016, the plaintiff commenced the present action by serving a complaint, in which it claimed $37, 913.27 for unpaid medical services it had provided to Edward Malley on five occasions between February 12, 2015, and July 15, 2015. Further, the plaintiff alleged that, under General Statutes § 46b-37,[3] the defendant was liable for the unpaid medical services rendered to Edward Malley.

         In July, 2016, Attorney Jon C. Leary filed an appearance on behalf of the defendant and Edward Malley. Leary also filed an answer on behalf of both individuals on August 26, 2016. On three occasions, however, Leary filed motions with the court for permission to withdraw his appearance on behalf of the defendant. The clerk of court rejected Leary's first two motions to withdraw, and the third motion was marked off by the court and not again considered until the scheduled trial date.

         On June 14, 2017, Leary informed the court that he was prepared to stipulate to a judgment on behalf of Edward Malley, and he further indicated that he had unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw his appearance on behalf of the defendant and that he had been unable to communicate with her. The court responded: ‘‘I can't just grant you your motion to withdraw as counsel today . . . because we don't have notice of that being heard today with [the defendant].'' The court went on to state: ‘‘Nevertheless, although [the defendant] has no obligation to be here, she's not here to defend herself.''

         Leary read into the record a stipulation for judgment against Edward Malley in the amount of $38, 355.15 plus costs in the amount of $441.89. The court then asked how it should proceed with regard to the defendant, to which the plaintiff's counsel responded that it should render a default judgment. Leary said nothing in response to this request from the plaintiff's counsel. The court thereupon entered a default against the defendant and, immediately thereafter, rendered a default judgment against the defendant in the same amount as the stipulated judgment against Edward Malley. This appeal followed.

         ‘‘We first briefly discuss our standard of review of the defendant's claim. To the extent that the defendant challenges the court's authority to enter a default, our review is plenary. . . . We also engage in plenary review with regard to the construction of any relevant statutory provisions or rules of practice. . . . Finally, provided we determine that the court had that authority to act, we review its exercise of that authority under an abuse of discretion standard.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. v. Bertrand, 140 Conn.App. 646, 655-56, 59 A.3d 864, cert. dismissed, 309 Conn. 905, 68 A.3d 661 (2013). When, however, the court lacks authority to default a party, its entry of a default is erroneous as a matter of law and, thus, constitutes an abuse of discretion. People's United Bank v. Bok, 143 Conn.App. 263, 272-73, 70 A.3d 1074 (2013).

         Because the defendant's claims were not raised below, we must at the outset also address the issue of reviewability. The defendant argues that ‘‘this court should reverse because the trial court's entry of default against [her] constitutes plain error.'' We agree with the defendant.

         ‘‘Codified in Practice Book § 60-5, [t]he plain error doctrine . . . is not . . . a rule of reviewability. It is a rule of reversibility. . . . It is a doctrine that should be invoked sparingly and only on occasions requiring the reversal of the judgment under review. . . . Success on such a claim is rare. Plain error review is reserved for truly extraordinary situations where the existence of the error ...


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