Equitable Relief from Default Judgment - Mislabeled Court Papers in California
Equitable relief from default judgment may be granted where a party was prevented from participating in the action due to an extrinsic mistake of a third party, and this denied the party a fair hearing. See e.g., Kulchar v. Kulchar (1969) 1 Cal.3d 467, 472; Cruz v. Fagor America, Inc. (2006) 146 Cal.App.4th 488, 502; Marriage of Park (1980) 27 Cal.3d 337, 342; Sporn v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 126 Cal.App.4th 1294, 1300 (relief from default with evidence that papers were lost). In the case of Baske v. Burke (1981) 125 Cal.App.3d 38, 43-44, the defendant, a 90-year old woman, wrote letters to the court that were in effect an answer to the complaint, and offered to pay filing fees; but the court clerk failed to place her letters in the court file or to seek instructions from the court. Entry of default was held to be clerical error and equitable relief from default judgment was grated for “extrinsic mistake." In Rappleyea v. Campbell (1994) 8 Cal.4th 975, 981-83, a court clerk misinformed pro per defendants as to the filing fee for their answer, and the appellate court held it was an abuse of discretion to deny equitable relief for “extrinsic mistake." “The court clerk is entitled to rely on a document’s title in determining whether it is one of the permitted responses. Defendant cannot claim it has filed an answer if the document filed is labeled otherwise! [Wisdom v. Ramirez (1985) 177 Cal. App.3d Supp. 1, 8 ; Janssen v. Luu (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 272, 276]." Rutter Guide, Civil Procedure Before Trial, section 5:33, Title of Response Determinative. “The court clerk has no authority to determine the legal sufficiency of the pleading or motion filed by the defendant. Thus, as long as it appears to be one of the permissible responses (answer, demurrer, etc.), the clerk must refuse a request for default; and any default entered by the clerk would be void. [Stevens v. Torregano (1961) 192 Cal.App.2d 105, 112-113]." Rutter Guide, Civil Procedure Before Trial, section 5:37, Sufficiency of response immaterial. Indeed, where the error causes entry of default judgment, it should be considered that entry of default is a drastic sanction, and sanctions for violation of local court rules may only be imposed under C.C.P. section 575.2 if the offending party is given notice and an opportunity to be heard. See e.g., Annex British Cars, Inc. v. Parker-Rhodes (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 788, 792-93. As explained further in the Rutter Guide, “In the absence of a prior warning of default, courts are inclined to grant C.C.P. section 473(b) motions to set aside defaults. [See Smith v. Los Angeles Bookbinders Union No. 63, supra, 133 Cal.App.2d at 500]." Rutter Guide, Civil Procedure Before Trial, section 5:70, Effect of Failure to warn. “Defendants appearing in pro per are not entitled to special treatment. But where one party is represented by counsel and the other is not, the trial judge must monitor the proceedings to make sure the pro per defendant is “not misled either by the represented party or by the court." [See Gammet v. Blanchard (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1276, 1284]… Confusing or misleading use of legal jargon or shorthand (by counsel or the court) may be ground to set aside any default or judgment against the pro per. [Gammet v. Blanchard, supra, 91 Cal.App.4th at 1285.]." Rutter Guide, Civil Procedure Before Trial, section 5:71.5-10, Dealing with Pro Per Defendants and Practice Pointer.
Note that additional legal authorities may also support the relief requested:
C.C.P. section 473(b)
C.C.P. section 473(d), which states, “The court may, upon motion of the injured party, or its own motion, correct clerical mistakes in its judgment or orders as entered, so as to conform to the judgment or order directed, and may, on motion of either party after notice to the other party, set aside any void judgment or order."
California Rule of Court 2.118(c), “For good cause shown, the court may permit the filing of papers that do not comply with the rules in this chapter."
Civil Code §3528 requires that substance is more important than form.