Default Judgments: One of the Many Potential Risks You Face by Handling Your Maryland Divorce Case Without a Lawyer

People who try to litigate their divorce actions without the aid of a knowledgeable Maryland divorce lawyer can fall victim to many potential pitfalls. A recent case originating in Baltimore County, while not a divorce action, nevertheless contains some very valuable lessons for people considering litigating a divorce without counsel.

The dispute pitted a landlord against his former tenant. The landlord’s lawsuit alleged that the tenant owed more than $17,000 in unpaid rent and compensation for property damage. The tenant received her copy of the court papers (which included the landlord’s complaint and a court summons) on Dec. 20, 2020.

The tenant didn’t hire a lawyer. On Jan. 6, 2021, she filed a document with the trial court that she called a “Late Defense,” even though the document was, in fact, not late. She’d made a critical error, though: she neglected to include a “Certificate of Service,” which is a mandatory component of all valid court complaints and responses.

On Jan. 13, 2021, the tenant filed a second document, again giving it the title of “Late Defense,” even though this document, like the one before it, was timely filed. (This one included a certificate of service.)

Three weeks later, the landlord asked the trial judge to issue a default judgment in his favor. Default judgments are judgments that one party (typically the plaintiff/petitioner) receives from the court because the other side either took no timely steps to oppose the plaintiff’s action or failed to respond in a legally permissible way.

On March 2, the tenant filed another paper with the court. In it, she explained that “I filed ‘late defense’ paper which was not the correct paperwork that I received from the courthouse …. However, I was unaware of [that] at the time.” She also filed an answer to the landlord’s complaint that same day. By this point, the time for filing an answer had already passed.

The court didn’t accept that answer, and the judge also noted that the tenant “could well benefit from the assistance of competent legal counsel.” Ultimately, the court awarded the landlord a default judgment.

The tenant was fortunate; her case went up on appeal and the appeals court decided that the tenant’s Jan. 13 document met the legal requirements for an answer to a civil complaint. (Maryland law says that courts must “treat a paper filed by a party according to its substance, and not by its label.)

While no longer facing the default judgment, the tenant still, as the trial judge wisely pointed out, stands to benefit from retaining skilled legal representation. She’s already lost valuable time, she nearly had a default judgment entered against her, and she still needs to engage in obtaining and presenting evidence that will support her defense positions. She will also need to be ready to oppose any improper actions by the landlord like, for example, attempting to admit inadmissible evidence.

Divorce cases have a few things in common with residential landlord-tenant disputes. One, unfortunately, is that too many people on the receiving end of that civil complaint or divorce petition make the mistake of not obtaining legal counsel. In trying to litigate their defense on their own, they are especially prone to making procedural errors that can be damaging — or even fatal — to their case. Some may be non-intuitive things that only an experienced lawyer would recognize. Other times, self-represented litigants are tripped up by extremely basic errors. (Even a newly minted lawyer would know to include a certificate of service on his/her court pleadings.)

These mistakes can possibly cost you time and money. They even potentially can result in dire outcomes like a dismissal or a default judgment for the other side. Your divorce case is too important to let that happen to you. Instead, retain the knowledgeable Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. Our experienced team is here to provide you with the effective and detail-oriented advocacy your case deserves. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

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