from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-15-901321)
Coke, the defendant in a collection action brought by Family
Security Credit Union ("FSCU") in the Jefferson
Circuit Court, appeals from a default judgment entered by
that court in favor of FSCU. Because Coke was not in default
at the time that the trial court entered that judgment, we
reverse the judgment and remand the cause for further
April 2015, FSCU sued Coke, alleging that she had breached a
September 2012 agreement to repay a principal loan amount of
$12, 488 plus other sums, the repayment of which had been
secured by a security interest in a 2005 Cadillac automobile;
the complaint sought possession of the automobile and a money
judgment for the unpaid sums under the contract. The summons
accompanying the complaint listed Coke's address in
Birmingham as "305 Ct. W" (i.e., 305 Court
West). Within 30 days of service of the summons and
complaint, Coke filed a motion seeking, in effect, a more
definite statement of FSCU's claim (see
generally Rule 12(e), Ala. R. Civ. P.) and averring that
she had paid more moneys under the contract than had been
required. On June 29, 2015, the trial court set Coke's
motion for a July 8, 2015, hearing; on the date of that
hearing, at which Coke was not present, the trial court
entered an order denying Coke's Rule 12(e) motion and
allowing her 30 days to answer the complaint. However, in
response to Coke's subsequent motion to set aside that
order (in which she noted that her actual address was 305
9th Court West and that she had not received notice
of the hearing on her motion for a more definite statement),
the trial court entered two orders on August 6, 2015. One of
those orders "vacated and set aside" the trial
court's July 8, 2015, order and directed that Coke's
address be changed in the docketing system; the other
indicated the trial judge's recusal from hearing the case
and requested reassignment thereof.
October 2015, FSCU filed a motion in which it
"request[ed] a hearing based on the prior motion of the
defendant, " evidently seeking a determination whether a
newly assigned judge would or would not grant Coke's
motion for a more definite statement. In June 2016, FSCU
again moved for the setting of a hearing in the case. The
trial court, acting through a newly assigned judge, entered
an order on April 17, 2017, requesting an update on the
status of the case, advising that it would be dismissed
within 14 days if no response was received. FSCU immediately
complied on April 18, 2017, again requesting a hearing
"based on the prior motion of the defendant."
Despite the pendency of the Rule 12(e) motion, on April 19,
2017, the trial court set a "Default Judgment
Hearing" for May 9, 2017. On May 10, 2017, the day after
that hearing, the trial court entered a default judgment
noting that Coke had failed to appear at the "Default
Judgment Hearing, " awarding FSCU possession of the
automobile at issue, and permitting FSCU to apply any
proceeds derived from the subsequent disposition of the
automobile to Coke's alleged indebtedness (which the
trial court calculated to be $8, 568.97, including attorney
fees). Coke timely filed a postjudgment motion directed to
the trial court's judgment, which was denied; she also
sought to file other papers prepared by her son, Edward Coke,
but those papers were ordered to be struck on motion of FSCU.
Coke then timely appealed from the default judgment to this
"One primary principle of the Alabama Rules of Civil
Procedure is that the parties to an action should be afforded
a prompt and fair trial upon the merits. Inherent in this
principle is that default judgments are not favored, and,
while the trial court has discretion to grant such judgments,
the exercise of discretion should be resolved in favor of the
defaulting party where there is doubt as to the propriety of
a default judgment."
Hutchinson v. Hutchinson, 647 So.2d 786, 788 (Ala.
Civ. App. 1994) (citations omitted).
55, Ala. R. Civ. P., sets forth the procedure that must be
followed in order for a default judgment to be appropriate.
As this court noted in Griffin v. Blackwell, 57
So.3d 161 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010):
"'The first step is the entry of a default.
When a party against whom affirmative relief is sought
fails to plead or otherwise defend the action and
that fact is made to appear by affidavit or otherwise, the
clerk enters a default. [Rule] 55(a). A judgment by default
may then be entered.'
".... Thus, a party must first obtain an entry of
default by the clerk or the trial court before he or she can
obtain a default judgment from the trial court."
57 So.3d at 163-64 (quoting J & P Constr. Co. v.
Valta Constr. Co., 452 So.2d 857, 859 (Ala.
1984)) (emphasis added). The record in this case does not
reflect that the trial court or the clerk of the trial court
was asked by FSCU to enter a default as to Coke; indeed,
FSCU's filings indicate a recognition that the
preliminary matter of Coke's motion for a more definite
statement was due to be adjudicated before the case could
Larkin v. Branch Banking & Trust Co., 101 So.3d
239 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012), this court considered a similar
issue to that presented in this case. In that case, a
plaintiff moved for the entry of the defendant's default
and for the entry of a default judgment, after which the
defendant filed a motion, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Ala. R.
Civ. P., seeking dismissal on the basis that the plaintiff
had failed to state a valid claim. Four days later, the trial
court entered a default judgment notwithstanding the
defendant's having interposed his motion to dismiss. In
reversing the judgment on the basis that the defendant had
"otherwise defended" against the claim, we cited
caselaw and secondary authority interpreting the federal
procedural rule analogous to our Rule 55 for the proposition
that a defendant's challenges to "'the
sufficiency of the prior pleading'" or motions
"'for better particulars'" would constitute
efforts to "otherwise defend" against a
plaintiff's complaint in the absence of an answer. 101
So.3d at 241 (quoting 10A Charles A. Wright et al.,
Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil § 2682
(3d ed.), and Bass v. Hoagland, 172 F.2d 205, 210
(5th Cir. 1949)).
case, we conclude that the trial court erred by, sua sponte,
determining Coke to be in default and entering a default
judgment against her despite the pendency of her motion
seeking a more definite statement of FSCU's claim against
her. We therefore reverse that ...