Stidham v. Whelchel, 27S02-9808-JV-451

Docket NºNo. 27S02-9808-JV-451
Citation698 N.E.2d 1152
Case DateAugust 18, 1998
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

Page 1152

698 N.E.2d 1152
Rocky STIDHAM, Appellant (Respondent below),
Kathy (Stephens) WHELCHEL, Appellee (Petitioner below).
No. 27S02-9808-JV-451.
Supreme Court of Indiana.
Aug. 18, 1998.

Page 1153

Joe Keith Lewis, Marion, for Appellant.

James T. Beaman, Marion, for Appellee.


BOEHM, Justice.

We grant transfer to make clear that a judgment rendered without personal jurisdiction over the defendant may be set aside at any time.

Factual and Procedural Background

In 1977 Kathy Whelchel filed a paternity action in her home county in Indiana against Rocky Stidham, a Kentucky resident. Whelchel sent service of process to Stidham in Kentucky by certified mail. Stidham did not answer or appear in the Indiana proceedings. In 1978 the court entered a default judgment against Stidham and ordered that he pay twenty dollars weekly child support. Whelchel then initiated proceedings to enforce the order in Kentucky. 1 In 1979 a court in the Kentucky county where Stidham resided held a hearing to determine if a duty of support existed under Kentucky law. According to the Kentucky record, Whelchel was sent notice of the Kentucky hearing but did not appear. Stidham testified that he had never been in Indiana, barely knew Whelchel, and had never had sex with her. The Kentucky court entered a written order that concluded that the Indiana court's judgment was not entitled to full faith and credit because the Indiana court lacked personal jurisdiction over Stidham.

There the matter rested until seventeen years later when Stidham filed a motion in the Indiana court under Trial Rule 60(B)(6) to set aside the default judgment as void for lack of personal jurisdiction. The Indiana trial court noted that under Trial Rule 60(B)(6) a motion for relief must be filed within a "reasonable time," and denied Stidham's motion on the ground that the seventeen year delay in filing the motion was not "reasonable." Stidham was ordered to pay $18,440 in back support and attorney fees.

Stidham appealed, contending that the 1978 Indiana judgment was void for lack of personal jurisdiction over him. The Court of Appeals agreed with Stidham that a void judgment is a legal nullity and therefore could be overturned at any time under Person v. Person, 563 N.E.2d 161, 163 (Ind.Ct.App.1990). However, the Court of Appeals concluded that "because Stidham received constitutionally adequate service of process, any lack of personal jurisdiction would render the judgment against him merely voidable, not void." Stidham v. Whelchel, 684 N.E.2d 548, 552 (Ind.Ct.App.1997). Because the judgment was voidable it was subject to the "reasonable time" limitation of Trial Rule 60(B), and seventeen years was too late to attack the judgment.

Stidham petitions for transfer. We grant transfer, reverse the trial court, and remand for further proceedings.

Page 1154

I. The Validity of the 1978 Indiana Default Judgment

Stidham, a nonresident defendant, attacks the validity of the default judgment because he contends that the trial court in the 1978 action did not have personal jurisdiction over him. Specifically he says he had no "minimum contacts" with this State. Stidham acknowledges that sexual intercourse in Indiana leading to conception is a sufficient contact to support a paternity order under Trial Rule 4.4. Neill v. Ridner, 153 Ind.App. 149, 286 N.E.2d 427 (1972). However, he maintains that at the time of the action he had never been in Indiana and that he never had sex with Whelchel in this State or elsewhere.

Stidham is correct that a default judgment that is rendered without minimum contacts violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and is void. In holding that a default judgment rendered without minimum contacts is voidable not void, the Court of Appeals stands in direct conflict with World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 100 S.Ct. 559, 62 L.Ed.2d 490 (1980) and International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 66 S.Ct. 154, 90 L.Ed. 95 (1945). As the Supreme Court held in World-Wide Volkswagen,

[t]he Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the power of a state court to render a valid personal judgment against a nonresident defendant. A judgment rendered in violation of due process is void in the rendering State and not entitled to full faith and credit elsewhere. Due process requires that the defendant be given adequate notice of the suit and be subject to the personal jurisdiction of the court.

444 U.S. at 291, 100 S.Ct. 559 (citations omitted). And as firmly established by International Shoe, the Due Process Clause "does not contemplate that a state may make binding a judgment in personam against an individual or corporate defendant with which the state has no contacts, ties, or relations." 326 U.S. at 319, 66 S.Ct. 154. Under this clear precedent, a judgment entered without minimum contacts violates due process and a judgment that violates due process is void not voidable. See also Burnham v. Superior Court of California, County of Marin, 495 U.S. 604, 608, 110 S.Ct. 2105, 109 L.Ed.2d 631 (1990) ("The proposition that the judgment of a court lacking [personal] jurisdiction is void traces back to the English Year Books....") (citations omitted). 2

The distinction between a void and voidable judgment is no mere semantic quibble. "A void judgment is one that, from its inception, is a complete nullity and without legal effect...." 46 AM.JUR.2D Judgments § 31 (1994). By contrast, a voidable judgment "is not a nullity, and is capable of confirmation or ratification. Until superseded, reversed, or vacated it is binding, enforceable, and has all the ordinary attributes and consequences of a valid judgment." 46 AM.JUR.2D Judgments § 30 (1994). A judgment rendered by a State without the necessary contacts with an indispensable party (in this case the only party) is void because it would "offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice," International Shoe, 326 U.S. at 316, 66 S.Ct. 154 (internal quotation marks omitted), if it were merely voidable. A plaintiff would be able to obtain a default judgment after serving process upon any party, no matter how remote, and place the burden on that party to seek to eradicate the record "within a reasonable time" or run the risk that a valid judgment may be outstanding in the plaintiff's choice of forum where it may become quite important at some indeterminate time in the future even if

Page 1155

insignificant today. This result would invite courts to rule on suits against anyone. A court simply has no power over persons who have no contact with their territory, unless and until there is a response or an appearance and the lack of personal jurisdiction is not protested. Accordingly, if Stidham is correct that no minimum contacts existed, then the Indiana trial court did not have personal jurisdiction over him and its effort to exercise that power was a nullity.

In the present case, the Court of Appeals cited Lucas v. Estate of Stavos, 609 N.E.2d 1114, 1117 (Ind.Ct.App.1993) for the proposition that "judgments rendered where personal jurisdiction may be lacking are not void but voidable because the defect may be cured or waived." 3 Stidham, 684 N.E.2d at 552. A handful of other cases have used similar language. See Trook v. Lafayette Bank & Trust Co., 581 N.E.2d 941, 944-46 (Ind.Ct.App.1991); see also K.S. v. R.S., 669 N.E.2d 399,...

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