Young v. Hagel

Decision Date25 June 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20190661-CA,20190661-CA
Citation469 P.3d 1136
CourtUtah Court of Appeals
Parties Joshua J. YOUNG, Appellee, v. Michaela M. HAGEL, Appellant.

Steve S. Christensen, Salt Lake City, and Clinton R. Brimhall, Attorneys for Appellant

Mark R. Hales, Attorney for Appellee

Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges Michele M. Christiansen Forster and Diana Hagen concurred.

Opinion

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 After nearly four years of contested litigation in a child custody case, the district court entered a default order against Michaela M. Hagel after her attorney purported to withdraw and she did not file a response to a notice to appear or appoint counsel. After learning of the default order, Hagel asked the district court to set it aside, but the district court denied her motion. Hagel now appeals that denial, and we reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Hagel and Joshua J. Young have a child (Child) together. In 2011, a Texas court entered an "agreed order" appointing Young as Child's "sole managing conservator" and limiting Hagel to "reasonable supervised visitation," finding that it would not be in Child's best interest for Hagel to have "specific periods of possession" of Child. The Texas court also ordered that Child have no contact with Hagel's current husband. In 2015, after relocating to Utah, Young registered the Texas order with the Utah district court.

¶3 Soon after the Texas order was registered in Utah, both Young and Hagel—through counsel—filed competing petitions to modify it. Young alleged that Hagel had allowed the Child to have contact with her husband, and therefore asked the court to allow Hagel to exercise parent-time only in Utah and only under professional supervision. In her petition, Hagel asserted that her circumstances had changed, and that she not only should be allowed unsupervised parent-time, but that she should be awarded sole physical custody of Child. After over a year of litigation, the parties reached agreement on modification of the Texas order, and in 2016 the Utah district court entered an order encapsulating that agreement and superseding the Texas order.

¶4 Over a year later, in early 2018, Hagel filed a motion for an order to show cause, asking the court to hold Young in contempt for alleged violations of the operative custody order. Young responded by filing a counter-motion of his own, alleging that Hagel had violated the order, and asking the court to hold her in contempt. The matter came before a court commissioner, who recommended that the parties be ordered to participate in mediation. No party objected to that recommendation, and the district court entered an order commanding the parties to mediate their differences, and stating that if mediation proved unsuccessful, then the parties should "schedule a pre-trial conference to certify the issues for [an] informal trial."

¶5 The parties complied with the court's order, and participated in mediation, but they were not able to reach agreement on the issues raised in the competing cross-motions for contempt. After the unsuccessful mediation, Hagel's attorney filed a notice announcing his withdrawal, incorrectly certifying that no motions were currently pending,1 and incorrectly identifying the client from whose representation he was attempting to withdraw. Hagel's counsel did not file a motion asking the court for permission to withdraw, and the court did not sign an order authorizing counsel to withdraw.

¶6 In response to Hagel's attorney's notice of withdrawal, Young's attorney filed a document captioned "Notice of Appearance," but which was apparently intended to serve as a notice to appear or appoint counsel. See Utah R. Civ. P. 74(c). Young's attorney mailed a copy of the document to Hagel at her home address. In the document, Young's attorney told Hagel that she "has the responsibility to formally appear personally or to appoint counsel in this matter," and that "the failure to file a formal personal Notice of Appearance will result in striking all your pleadings, an entry of default, and [Young's] pleadings being exclusively used to create any pending orders consistent with Rule 55(b)(1)(A) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure." The document did not purport to give Hagel a firm deadline by which any such appearance had to be made, although it did state that "[n]o further proceedings shall be held in the case until 20 days after" the document was filed.2

¶7 Hagel filed no response to the "Notice of Appearance," either personally or through counsel. About two months later, Young filed a motion asking the court to enter default against Hagel due to her lack of response. However, Young did not serve a copy of his motion on Hagel and, predictably, she did not respond to it. A court clerk later entered a default certificate.

¶8 After obtaining the default certificate, Young then filed a "Motion for Default Orders," in which he asked the district court to hold Hagel in contempt. He also asked the court to order certain modifications to the parties’ custody arrangement, including requiring that Hagel exercise parent-time exclusively in Utah, that Young would be allowed to claim Child for tax purposes, and that Hagel pay his attorney fees. Young did not serve a copy of this motion on Hagel, and Hagel did not respond to it. The district court, without holding a hearing, entered Young's requested order (the Order), captioned "Order of Modification." In that order, the court held Hagel in contempt for various reasons, including smoking around Child, "harassing" Young's spouse, and for a child support arrearage; entered judgment against her for $850 related to unpaid child support; and "restrained" her from "calling [the] cops to do welfare checks" on Child and from "calling CPS."3 The court also ordered that Young "is awarded his attorney fees." In addition, the court ordered that all of Hagel's parent-time "must occur in Utah" and that Young could "claim [Child] for tax purposes." Following entry of the Order, Young mailed Hagel a copy of it, as required by rules 5(a)(2)(D) and 58A(g) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, even though he had not served her with copies of any of the motions leading up to the Order.

¶9 About three weeks later, a new attorney representing Hagel entered an appearance and filed a motion asking the district court to set aside the Order. The motion invoked rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, and asserted that Hagel's actions in failing to respond to the "Notice of Appearance" and the motions for default were due to excusable neglect. Hagel also pointed out, among other things, that her previous attorney's notice of withdrawal was improper under rule 74(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, which states that, when motions are pending, "an attorney may not withdraw except upon motion and order of the court." Young opposed the motion, and the court denied it in a written ruling and order.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶10 Hagel now appeals, arguing that the court improperly denied her motion to set aside the Order. Though district courts have "broad discretion" to grant or deny rule 60(b) motions, that discretion is "not unlimited," especially in the context of default judgments. See Menzies v. Galetka , 2006 UT 81, ¶ 54, 150 P.3d 480 (quotation simplified); see also Lund v. Brown , 2000 UT 75, ¶ 10, 11 P.3d 277 (stating that "the nature of a default judgment and the equitable nature of rule 60 provide further limits" on a court's discretion). When a default judgment is at issue, rule 60(b) motions "should be liberally granted because of the equitable nature of the rule," and courts "should exercise [their] discretion in favor of granting relief so that controversies can be decided on the merits rather than on technicalities." Menzies , 2006 UT 81, ¶ 54, 150 P.3d 480. A district court abuses its discretion if it denies a rule 60(b) motion to set aside a default judgment in a case where all of the requirements for the granting of that motion are met. See id. (stating that "it is an abuse of discretion for a district court to deny a 60(b) motion to set aside a default judgment if there is a reasonable justification for the moving party's failure and the party requested 60(b) relief in a timely fashion"); Lund , 2000 UT 75, ¶ 11, 11 P.3d 277 (stating that "it is quite uniformly regarded as an abuse of discretion to refuse to vacate a default judgment where there is reasonable justification or excuse for the defendant's failure to appear, and timely application is made to set it aside" (quotation simplified)); see also Katz v. Pierce , 732 P.2d 92, 93 (Utah 1986) (per curiam) ("Where there is doubt about whether a default should be set aside, that doubt should be resolved in favor of doing so."). And, "[i]f a district court's ruling on a 60(b) motion is based on clearly erroneous factual findings or flawed legal conclusions, the district court has likely abused its discretion." Menzies , 2006 UT 81, ¶ 55, 150 P.3d 480.

ANALYSIS

¶11 A litigant is "entitled to have a default judgment set aside under rule 60(b)" if three requirements are satisfied: "(1) the motion is timely; (2) there is a basis for granting relief under one of the subsections of [ rule] 60(b) ; and (3) the movant has alleged a meritorious defense."4 Menzies , 2006 UT 81, ¶ 64, 150 P.3d 480. It is uncontested that Hagel's rule 60(b) motion was filed in a timely fashion; we therefore focus our discussion on the other two requirements, both of which are contested here.

A

¶12 To meet the second requirement, Hagel must demonstrate that at least one of the subsections of rule 60(b) provides a basis for setting aside the Order. In an effort to make this showing, Hagel points to subsection (1) of rule 60(b), and asserts that her failure to respond to the "Notice of Appearance" and to Young's default motions was the result of excusable neglect. See Utah R. Civ. P. 60(b)(1) (stating that a court "may relieve a party ... from a judgment [or] order ... for ......

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