The client, an agricultural and industrial equipment manufacturer, filed suit against a delinquent tractor dealership following the dealership’s failure to pay for over $75,000.00 worth of goods and equipment that the dealership purchased from the manufacturer. The dealership ignored its obligation to formally respond to the manufacturer’s lawsuit, sending instead a casual letter to the manufacturer’s lawyer disputing the amount of debt owed by the dealership to the manufacturer. By sending this informal letter only, the dealership acted outside of the requirements of the rules of procedure and left the manufacturer with no option but to take a default judgment against the dealership.
Then, instead of collecting the judgment outright (as it was entitled to do), the manufacturer engaged in settlement negotiations with the dealer. When these settlement negotiations failed, the manufacturer was left with no option but to collect its judgment by garnishing the dealership’s bank accounts. At that point, the dealership retained an attorney who persuaded the trial court to set aside the default judgment. Believing that the trial court’s decision to set aside the default was contrary to the rules of civil procedure, our client petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to require the trial court to reverse its decision. The Supreme Court agreed.
In making its decision, the Supreme Court reiterated long-standing precedent that informal letters, like the one sent by the dealership, do not constitute proper pleadings unless they are filed with the clerk of court. The Supreme Court also made clear that counsel for one party is under no obligation to file or to notify the court about letters it receives from an unrepresented opponent, nor is counsel obligated to advise an unrepresented opponent that it must file its communication with the court clerk. This is especially so when the summons served with the complaint specifically instructs the defendant that it must file something with the clerk of the court to avoid default. After noting that our trial counsel acted reasonably and ethically, the Supreme Court issued a writ of mandamus to the trial court ordering it to vacate its order setting aside the default judgment and ordering it to reinstate the default judgment in favor of our client.