PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) - The Rhode Island Supreme Court, in a ruling Monday, vacated a lower court's judgment in a case spanning more than four years.
The case dates back to April 2004 when the police responded to a complaint that the defendants, Earl Blamires, his wife Sylvia and Earl's son Brian, were dumping a considerable amount of debris onto land owned by Val-Gioia Properties LLC.
Val-Gioia then sought damages for cleanup costs. In October 2006, it filed a complaint against the defendants, alleging nuisance and trespass, in the Third Division District Court.
After the Blamireses failed to retain counsel and show up for numerous trial dates, a district court judge granted Val-Gioia's motion for default judgment and the case was continued to Jan. 2, 2007 for oral proof of claim.
Finally, the defendants retained counsel, filing a motion to vacate the default judgment. The district court denied the motion and eventually reassigned the case to Jan. 16, 2007.
However, just days before, on Jan. 10, 2007, the defendants' counsel filed an appeal with the Kent County Superior Court from the denial of the motion to vacate the default judgment.
The superior court initially conducted a bench trial and the case was reserved for decision. However, the trial justice, troubled by the case, issued two decisions, 10 months apart.
In the first decision, issued on Nov. 30, 2007, the judge concluded that because he was confronted with an appeal from the entry of a default judgment, the superior court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the merits of the case and that he erred in conducting the brief bench trial.
So, the judge continued the case for a new hearing on the issue of whether the default judgment should be vacated.
On May 30, 2008, the trial justice, hearing nothing from the parties and having concluded that the superior court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case, issued an order remanding the case to the district court; however, he directed that the default judgment "remain in full force and effect."
One month later, the judge vacated his remand order and, apparently at the request of the parties, agreed to hear arguments relative to the default judgment.
On Oct. 2, 2008, the trial justice issued a second decision, concluding that the district court had properly entered a default judgment and that the defendants had failed to show excusable neglect sufficient to overcome the default.
On Oct. 16, 2008, final judgment was entered on behalf of the plaintiff. It is from this judgment that the defendants appealed to the state Supreme Court.
They argue that the district court erred in issuing a default judgment and in denying their motion to vacate the judgment. They also argue that it was an abuse of discretion for the superior court to affirm the denial of the motion to vacate the district court's entry of default judgment.
Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, who authored the Court's nine-page opinion, pointed to the superior court's handling of the case.
The superior court justice concluded that the court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to pass on the merits of the case. Based on this finding and after an evidentiary hearing, the trial justice sustained and confirmed the district court's default judgment. The court then entered the judgment for the plaintiff.
This was an error, the Court said.
"The District Court judgment was vacated when the defendants filed an appeal to the Superior Court," it wrote. "The defendants were entitled to a trial de novo on all issues of fact and law, notwithstanding the entry of a default judgment in the District Court.
"Significantly, by agreement of the parties, the Superior Court trial justice conducted a bench trial on the merits of the case although he reserved decision and the case took several detours."
The Court remanded the case to the superior court, demanding it make findings of fact on the merits of case and issue a decision and judgment.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.