On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-2789-02.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lisa and Simonelli.
Defendant Dr. Samuel Akuoku appeals from the order of October 13, 2006, denying his motion for reconsideration of the order of February 17, 2006, denying his motion to vacate a default judgment entered on February 20, 2003. We reverse and remand.
Plaintiff was an investor in a failed business venture known as Wabash Airlines, a/d/b Trade Winds Airlines. On August 23, 2002, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging he lost money as a result of a fraudulent scheme perpetrated by defendants.
Plaintiff served a summons and complaint on defendant, who resides in New York, by mail. Defendant received the summons and complaint on September 30, 2002, and took it to his attorney. Defendant's attorney assisted him in preparing a pro se answer and counterclaim, which contained lack of in personam and subject matter jurisdiction defenses. Defendant and his attorney mailed the answer and counterclaim to plaintiff's attorney, but did not file it with the court, or appear in court in response. Plaintiff's attorney received the answer and counterclaim, and filed an answer thereto on December 13, 2002.
On February 20, 2003, plaintiff's attorney filed a request to enter default, certification of service, and proof of amount due. Neither the court nor plaintiff's attorney has a copy of these papers, and plaintiff's attorney has no proof he served them on defendant or his attorney.
On February 20, 2003, the court entered default judgment "pursuant to [Rule] 4:43-1," but failed to set forth the amount of the judgment. A writ of execution shows the judgment amount as $219,243.20. Defendant never received a copy of the default judgment, and plaintiff's attorney has no proof he served it on defendant or his attorney. Defendant did not discover the default judgment until on or about July 21, 2005, when he received a letter from his bank advising it had placed a hold on his account after receiving a levy and writ of execution.
After negotiations with plaintiff's attorney to vacate the default judgment failed on November 2, 2005, defendant filed a motion to vacate based upon lack of proper service. On February 17, 2006, the trial court denied the motion, finding defendant failed to show exceptional circumstances. Defendant filed a motion for reconsideration on June 19, 2006. On October 5, 2006, the trial court denied the motion, finding it was not filed within twenty days, as required by Rule 4:49-2. This appeal followed.
Rule 4:50-1 permits the court to "relieve a party . . . from a final judgment" for, among other things: "(a) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; . . . (c) fraud . . ., misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party"; or "(d) the judgment or order is void."
The decision whether to grant a motion to vacate a default judgment is left to "the sound discretion of the trial court," and will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion. Marder v. Realty Constr. Co., 84 N.J. Super. 313, 318 (App. Div.), aff'd, 43 N.J. 508 (1964). Trial courts more liberally grant motions to vacate default judgments. Cho Hung Bank v. Kim, 361 N.J. Super. 331, 336 (App. Div. 2003) (citing Marder, supra, 84 N.J. Super. at 319). A motion to vacate a judgment that "is void and, therefore, unenforceable, it is a particularly worthy candidate for relief (R. 4:50-1(d)) provided that the time lapse [between the entry of the judgment and the motion to vacate the judgment] is not unreasonable and an innocent third party's rights have not intervened." Ibid. (citing Berger v. Paterson Veterans Taxi Serv., 244 N.J. Super. 200, 205 (App. Div. (1990)); Coryell, L.L.C. v. Curry, 391 N.J. Super. 72, 80 (App. Div. 2006). All doubt should be resolved in favor of the party seeking relief. Arrow Mfg. Co. v. Levinson, 231 N.J. ...