Submitted: August 2, 2013
William P. Brady, Esquire Woloshin, Lynch, Natalie, & Gagne Attorney for Plaintiff-Below/Appellee
Steven Goldstein, Esquire Attorney for Defendant-Below/Appellant
OPINION ON APPELLEE'S MOTION TO AFFIRM
Alex Smalls, Chief Judge.
This matter comes on appeal from the Justice of the Peace Court's order, entered August 9, 2012, denying Defendant-Below/Appellant Linda Payne's motion to vacate default judgment. As such, this matter is limited to a review of whether the Justice of the Peace Court abused its discretion in denying Ms. Payne's motion. Ms. Payne filed a Notice of Appeal in this Court on August 24, 2012. A conference was held on January 9, 2013, and the parties were ordered to submit briefs in support of their respective positions. On May 21, 2013, Plaintiff-Below/Appellee Davenport Services, Inc. ("Davenport Services") filed a Motion to Affirm the Justice of the Peace Court's August 9, 2012 decision. A hearing on the Motion was held on August 2, 2013 and at the conclusion thereof, the Court reserved decision. This is the Court's decision and order after consideration of the pleadings, oral argument, and written submissions of the parties.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Davenport Services initiated this debt action on August 4, 2011, in the Justice of the Peace Court, case J13-12-012863. In the Complaint, Davenport Services alleged: Ms. Payne failed to pay rent owed pursuant to a lease agreement between the parties; Ms. Payne failed to pay her water bill; Ms. Payne caused damage to the property, and; a fine was issued by New Castle County for failing to keep the property clean. On August 25, 2013, service was perfected via certified mail; a signed delivery receipt was docketed on August 29, 2013. On November 3, 2011, Davenport Services filed for default judgment in the amount of $10, 700.00 plus costs. On March 7, 2012, the Justice of the Peace Court entered a default judgment in the amount of $10, 740.00 in favor of Davenport Services, pursuant to Justice of the Peace Civil Rule 55.
After default judgment was entered, Davenport Services filed a wage attachment. Ms. Payne's wages were attached on April 19, 2012. On June 1, 2012, Ms. Payne, acting pro se, filed a motion for a new trial. On June 4, 2012, the Justice of the Peace Court entered an order denying the motion for a new trial, and advising Ms. Payne that the court would consider a motion to vacate judgment. On June 21, 2012, Ms. Payne, by and through counsel, filed a motion to vacate judgment. A hearing on the motion was held on July 25, 2012. On August 9, 2012, the Justice of the Peace Court entered an order denying the motion to vacate judgment.
On August 24, 2013, Ms. Payne timely filed an appeal to this Court. Ms. Payne asserts that the Justice of the Peace Court abused its discretion in denying her motion to vacate judgment, alleging she is entitled to relief under Justice of the Peace Civil Rule 60(b).
It is Ms. Payne's position that, under the circumstances, she acted as a reasonably prudent person. According to Ms. Payne, she never received the Summons and Complaint, nor did she receive notice of the default judgment entered against her; rather, she only became aware of these legal proceedings when her wages were attached. Furthermore, Ms. Payne argues, even if she did receive service of the summons and complaint, she was diagnosed with cancer and was preoccupied with chemotherapy treatment. Ms. Payne asserts that she has a meritorious defense in that she did not sign the lease, which is the basis for the claim. Ms. Payne also contends that Davenport Services will not be substantially prejudiced if the default judgment is set aside. Finally, Ms. Payne argues that the Justice of the Peace Court abused its discretion by making a determination of liability at the motion hearing, rather than hearing the merits of the case.
It is Davenport Services' position that the present appeal is without merit because there was no abuse of discretion by the court below. Davenport Services argues that the Justice of the Peace Court determined that Ms. Payne received the Court's notices, and that her medical treatment was limited and would not prevent her from responding to the Court's notices. Davenport Services further asserts that the court below considered the evidence, applied the appropriate legal standard, and considered the merits of Ms. Payne's defenses in reaching its decision. Thus, Davenport Services concludes, the court below did not abuse its discretion in denying Ms. Payne's motion to vacate judgment.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Review of a denial of a motion to vacate default judgment requires the Court to analyze such under the abuse of discretion standard. A motion to affirm is governed by Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 72.2(b)(3), which provides that the Court of Common Pleas may affirm the Justice of the Peace Court's decision where "the issue on appeal is one of judicial . . . discretion, and clearly there was no abuse of discretion." The essence of judicial discretion is the exercise of judgment by conscience and reason as opposed to capricious and arbitrary action. Where the Court has not exceeded the bounds of reason in view of the circumstances and has not ignored recognized rules of law or practice so as to produce injustice, its legal discretion has not been abused. This Court is not tasked with determining whether it would have reached a different decision; rather, the issue before this Court is whether the lower court's decision "[was] the product of logic, based ...