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Ark. SC rules clerk's signature on summons was valid

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Feb 1, 2012


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Legal Newsline) - The Arkansas Supreme Court last week affirmed a lower court's order upholding a default judgment and damages of more than $700,000 in a case hinging on the validity of a circuit clerk's signature.

The appellee in the case, a company called Purolite, filed a complaint against Unimeks LLC in March 2007, alleging the nonpayment of goods totaling $713,970.33.

A summons was issued and, according to the affidavit of service, was served on a Unimeks registered agent in Arkansas.

Unimeks did not answer the complaint.

The Pulaski County Circuit Court entered a default judgment in May 2007, finding that Unimeks was served with the summons, that it failed to answer and that Purolite was entitled to judgment against Unimeks for the amount alleged in the complaint, plus interest, fees and costs.

Unimeks claims it did not learn of the litigation until long after the default judgment had been entered and Purolite attempted to execute on the judgment.

In February 2010, Unimeks filed a motion to set aside the default judgment and dismiss the case.

Unimeks contended that the summons did not bear a valid signature of the circuit clerk, as required by Rule 4(b) of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure, and that the default judgment must be set aside as void.

The summons at issue contained a typewritten line near the end reading, "Scott Price, Pulaski County Circuit Clerk." The typewritten name "Scott Price" had a handwritten slash through it and the name "Pat O'Brien" was written in black ink underneath.

Below the handwritten name was a blank line for a signature with the words, "Deputy Clerk," underneath.

The seal of the circuit court appeared to the left of the signature line. The summons was dated March 19, 2007 and handwritten in blue ink. Also handwritten in blue ink were the case number, "CV07-3716," and the assignment to the specific division of the circuit court, "2nd."

Unimeks argued that the circuit court erred in finding that the summons was validly signed by the clerk.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals certified the case to the state's high court, requiring an interpretation of Rule 4(b) and clarification on what constitutes "strict compliance" with the requirement that a summons bear the signature of the clerk.

In its decision, filed Jan. 26, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's order upholding the default judgment.

Justice Donald L. Corbin authored the eight-page opinion.

"Our review of the record in this case reveals that, despite its assertion to the contrary, Unimeks has not offered sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of validity of the signature created by the seal of the court on the summons at issue here," Corbin wrote.

"To be clear, Unimeks did offer the undisputed affidavit of O'Brien that his name as it appeared on the summons was neither his signature nor his handwriting and that it was not written in accordance with his office procedure for the authorized use of his name by a deputy clerk.

"However, O'Brien's affidavit was the only evidence offered by Unimeks on this point, and it simply does not refute the fact that the signature could have been written by someone in O'Brien's office."

At best, O'Brien's affidavit establishes that his standard office procedure was not followed, the Court said.

"But it does nothing to rebut the presumption of validity given the signature by the seal of the court that appears on the summons here at issue," Corbin wrote. "Thus, we conclude that the seal gave a presumption of validity to the signature that was not rebutted, and therefore strict compliance with the signature requirement of Rule 4(b) and article 7, section 49 was satisfied."

Corbin said in order for the judicial system to "function properly," attorneys must be entitled to rely on the validity of such a summons "so returned" from a clerk.

The Court said it had "no hesitation" in concluding that there was no error in the circuit court's finding that the summons was valid in all respects.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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