April 21, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Default Judgment Improper Sanction for Nonappearance at Trial Where Attorney Present

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of K.J.B. on Thursday, December 4, 2014.

Dependency and Neglect—Right to a Jury Trial—Appearance by Counsel but not Defendant.

The Park County Department of Human Services (department) took the subject child into protective custody, placed the child with her father, and filed a petition in dependency and neglect. Mother denied the allegations in the petition and requested a trial to the court. Shortly thereafter, mother filed two written demands for a jury trial. The court denied mother’s requests.

Until that point in the proceedings, mother had participated by telephone; however, she was ordered to personally appear for the adjudicatory trial. She failed to appear, but her counsel appeared on her behalf. The department requested that a default judgment be entered against mother for failing to personally appear. Without hearing evidence, the court sustained the department’s allegations under multiple provisions of CRS §19-3-102(1) and adjudicated the child dependent and neglected by default judgment. It also adopted a treatment plan for mother. Mother appealed the adjudicatory order.

Nonappearance at trial does not constitute a failure “to plead or otherwise defend,” and is not a reason on which entry of a default can be predicated. The court could have received evidence in mother’s absence and then rendered judgment. Because the trial court did not state the legal authority it relied on to enter default judgment against mother for failing to appear, the Court of Appeals inferred that the judgment was entered as a sanction against mother. Although the court has contempt powers under CRCP 107, the rule does not authorize default judgment as a sanction for contempt. The Court therefore held that the trial court exceeded its authority in entering the default judgment. The order was reversed and the case was remanded for a trial.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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