Thomas v. King Cnty. Dep't of Cmty. & Health Servs.

Decision Date13 June 2022
Docket Number82740-5-I,82041-9-I
PartiesMINNIE THOMAS and LAWRENCE WILLIAMS, Appellants, v. KING COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY AND HEALTH SERVICES; NORTHWEST HOSPITAL, Respondents.
CourtWashington Court of Appeals

MINNIE THOMAS and LAWRENCE WILLIAMS, Appellants,
v.

KING COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY AND HEALTH SERVICES; NORTHWEST HOSPITAL, Respondents.

Nos. 82041-9-I, 82740-5-I

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

June 13, 2022


UNPUBLISHED OPINION

HAZELRIGG, J.

Minnie Thomas and Lawrence Williams appeal pro se the dismissal of their claims against King County Community and Health Services (KCCHS) and Northwest Hospital (NWH). They assign error to several rulings made in connection to their motion for a default judgment and for a continuance, and challenge the ultimate dismissal of their claims under CR 12(b)(6). NWH urges this court to reject the appeal based on failure to comply with the Rules of Appellate Procedure. We decline to do so and instead analyze the merits of the trial court's various rulings so that Thomas and Williams may better understand the procedural aspects of the proceedings and the legal reasoning for the outcome in the superior court. Because the trial court did not abuse its discretion, and Thomas and Williams failed to allege any set of facts upon which relief could be granted, we affirm.

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FACTS

In November 2016, Minnie Thomas was involuntarily committed to Northwest Hospital (NWH) pursuant to the involuntary treatment act[1] (ITA) after a "Designated Mental Health Professional"[2] (DMHP) employed by King County filed a petition in King County Superior Court requesting her commitment. The petition was granted and Thomas's detention was authorized by court order. Three years later, in November 2019, Thomas and her son Lawrence Williams filed a pro se complaint against King County Community and Health Services (KCCHS) and NWH. While the handwritten pleadings are difficult to decipher, Thomas and Williams (collectively, Thomas) seem to have brought claims for slander and libel, for conspiracy, for unlawful commitment, and violation of civil rights. Rather than filing answers to the complaint, KCCHS and NWH each filed motions to dismiss and accompanying motions to seal. Thomas later moved for a default judgment against both KCCHS and NWH, alleging each had failed to respond within 20 days after being served the summons and complaint as required by CR 12. The court granted the motions to dismiss and denied Thomas's motion for a default judgment. Thomas timely appeals.

ANALYSIS

While Thomas alleges bias and misapplication of court rules permeated the proceedings in superior court, the record and arguments on appeal demonstrate

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that this perspective is likely based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the procedural rules at issue in this litigation and the outcomes of the hearing conducted in the trial court. While we always endeavor to clearly set out the controlling authority and reasoning for our decisions, we take particular care with this case in the hopes that Thomas, and other pro se litigants, may fully understand the import and impact of compliance with relevant court rules.

I. Dismissal for Noncompliance with Rules of Appellate Procedure

As a preliminary matter, NWH asks this court to dismiss Thomas's appeal under RAP 10.3 and 10.4. It argues Thomas failed to provide citations to legal authority and references to the record as required in RAP 10.3 and to provide references to the record with page designations for factual statements as required by RAP 10.4. NWH is correct that we "hold pro se litigants to the same standards as attorneys." Winter v. Dep't of Soc. and Health Servs. on Behalf of Winter, 12 Wn.App. 2d 815, 844, 460 P.3d 667 (2020). However, we liberally interpret our Rules of Appellate Procedure "to promote justice and facilitate the decision of cases on the merits." RAP 1.2. Thomas's brief does contain some citations to the record and to legal authority, and we are able to glean the substance of her challenges from briefing. Based on this, and our liberal interpretation of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, we decline to dismiss Thomas's case on procedural grounds and instead reach the merits of her appeal.

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II. Denial of Motion for Default Judgment

Thomas first assigns error to several trial court decisions made in connection with her motion for a default judgment. First, she contends the court failed to rule on the motion in a timely manner. Second, she alleges the trial court erred in finding NWH's declaration of service credible over her declaration in response. Finally, she argues the trial court erred by dismissing her motion for a default judgment because NWH and KCCHS did not respond to her complaint within 20 days.

We review a trial court's decision denying a motion for default judgment for an abuse of discretion. Morin v. Burris, 160 Wn.2d 745, 753, 161 P.3d 956, (2007). A court abuses its discretion if its decision is based "on untenable grounds or for untenable reasons." Id. Under Washington civil rules, a party may move for a default judgment when the defending party "has failed to appear, plead, or otherwise defend." CR 55(a)(1). However, we have "long favored resolution of cases on their merits over default judgments." Morin, 160 Wn.2d at 749. Because of this policy, this court is less likely to find an abuse of discretion when a trial court declines to award a default judgment. See Colacurcio v. Burger, 110 Wn.App. 488, 494-95, 41 P.3d 506 (2002). We also "construe[] the concept of appearance broadly" in the context of a default judgment. Old Republic Nat. Title Ins. Co. v. Law Office of Robert E. Brandt, PLLC, 142 Wn.App. 71, 74-75, 174 P.3d 133 (2007). "We have not exalted form over substance but have examined the defendants' conduct to see if it was designed to and, in fact, did apprise the plaintiffs of the defendants' intent to litigate the cases." Morin, 160 Wn.2d at 753.

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Thomas asserts the court erred by delaying ruling on her motion for default judgment. She filed her motion on May 13, 2020, and NWH filed a response in opposition on June 4. The court heard oral argument on several motions of the parties, including the motion for default, on June 19, 2020. While the court did not enter a written ruling denying the motion until September 1, it orally denied the motion at the conclusion of the hearing on June 19. The record is clear that the court issued a contemporaneous oral ruling, but delayed entering the written order because Thomas alleged she had not received NWH's motion to dismiss. The court ordered NWH to send its pleadings to Thomas and gave Thomas additional time to respond to them before issuing a written order encompassing the various motions. Without more, we cannot say the court abused its discretion.

Next, Thomas assigns error to the trial court's decision to "accept" NWH's declaration of service as evidence Thomas was served over her declaration that she was not properly served. However, "credibility determinations are solely for the trier of fact" and "cannot be reviewed on appeal." Morse v. Antonellis, 149 Wn.2d 572, 574, 70 P.3d 125 (2003). The superior court judge, acting as trier of fact, was entitled to make its own credibility determinations when presented with two conflicting declarations, and we do not review that determination.

Finally, Thomas alleges the trial court erred in denying her motion for default because both defendants failed to file an answer within 20 days. Generally, a defendant must serve an answer within 20 days after being served the summons and complaint. CR 12(a)(1). However, a party may file a motion to dismiss prior to submitting an answer. CR 12(b)(6). If this motion is made, a defendant need

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not file an answer "until 10 days after notice that the court has 'denie(d) the motion or postpone(d) its disposition until the trial on the merits." Campbell v. Scannell, 32 Wn.App. 346, 348, 647 P.2d 529 (1982) (quoting CR 12(a)(4)(A)).

In Campbell, the court found the trial court abused its discretion in granting a motion for default. Id. The defendant Ross "appeared but failed to answer" within 20 days after service of the summons and complaint. Id. However, "he did respond or otherwise defend under CR 55(a) when he moved to dismiss the third party complaint before the default motion was heard," and therefore "he was not required to answer unless his motion to dismiss was denied or postponed" under CR 12(a)(4)(A). Id.

In the case before us, Thomas served NWH and KCCHS on February 6, 2020.[3] NWH filed its notice of appearance on February 18, and KCCHS filed its notice of appearance on February 26. Both NWH and KCCHS filed motions to dismiss under CR 12(b)(6), along with motions to seal as both motions to dismiss referred to proceedings involving Thomas under the ITA which necessarily included her protected health information. NWH filed its motion on May 11, 2020 and KCCHS filed its motion on April 28, 2020. Thomas filed her motion for a default judgment against both defendants on May 13, 2020. The court granted NWH's and KCCHS's motions to seal on May 22, 2020, but did not hear oral argument on either motion to dismiss until June 19, 2020.

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Like the defendant Ross in Campbell, NWH and KCCHS failed to formally answer within 20 days after being served the summons and complaint, though both filed notices of appearance. They did, however, defend against Thomas's claims by filing motions to dismiss and seal prior to her motion for a default judgment. Again, Washington courts have "long favored resolution of cases on their merits over default judgment," and will examine the proceedings to determine if the defendants' conduct "was designed to, and, in fact, did apprise the plaintiffs of the defendants' intent to litigate the case[]." Morin, 160 Wn.2d at 749, 755. The actions by KCCHS and NWH were designed to, and did, apprise Thomas of the entities' intent to litigate the case. Because of this, and our policy favoring decisions on the merits, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Thomas's motion for a...

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