Trial court should have made a finding that father was not evading service. . .
In reversal, Second District holds that trial court erred by, sua sponte, amending default child support judgment to change its effective date from December 1, 2017 to March 1, 2018, thereby excluding three months of child support.
County of Los Angeles Child Support Services v. Watson
(November 6, 2019; ordered published November 26, 2019)
California Court of Appeal 2 Civil B291505 (Div 7) 42 Cal.App.5th 638, 255 Cal.Rptr.3d 372, 2019 FA 1915, per Segal, J (Zelon, Acting PJ and Feuer, J, concurring). Los Angeles County: Villegas, Commissioner, reversed and remanded with directions. For County: Deputy Attorney General Ricardo Enriquez, (916) 210-7919. For father: no appearance. CFLP §§S.126.96.36.199.
On November 15, 2017, the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Dept. (CSSD) filed a complaint and proposed judgment, seeking an order for child support against Travonn Watson. The complaint asked the trial court to order Watson to pay $324 per month, beginning December 1, 2017, and warned Watson that if he did not file an answer to the complaint within 30 days, the proposed judgment would become a final judgment and its payments could be taken from his paycheck or other property.
The CSSD personally served Watson with the summons, complaint, and proposed judgment on February 19, 2018. On May 2nd, the department sought, and the trial court entered, Watson's default and a default judgment. However, the trial court, sua sponte, changed the effective date of the judgment to March 1, 2018, with no explanation other than a court stamp which stated that the commencement date was determined per Fam C §4009. CSSD gave Watson notice of the judgment on June 11, 2018.
The CSSD then appealed, and the Second District reversed and remanded.
Here a statute, there a statute. . .
The justices began by noting that the CSSD is part of a new statutory scheme that transferred responsibility for bringing child support actions from the district attorneys to local child support agencies. One of the statutes, Fam C §17400(d)(2), requires the CSSD to file a complaint and proposed judgment on Judicial Council forms which include notice of the 30-day time limit for filing a response, after which the trial court will enter the proposed judgment effective the first day of the month following the filing of the complaint. Moreover, they continued, Fam C §17430(a) provides that the trial court may enter a default child support judgment in an action brought by the CSSD without a further hearing or presentation of evidence if CSDD files proof of service that more than 30 days have elapsed since the alleged father was served and the judgment was properly prepared. However, Fam C §4009, on which the trial court relied here, provides that the trial court may make a child support order effective no earlier than the date of service where, as here, the respondent father was not served with the summons, complaint, or other pleading within 90 days of filing and the trial court makes a finding that the father was not intentionally evading service.
Default can be costly. . .
The justices assumed that the lower court had modified the commencement date of the judgment because Watson had not been served within 90 days of CSSD's filing the complaint and had not been evading service. Unfortunately, the trial court had made no express findings regarding these issues and there was no evidence to support a finding that Watson had not evaded service. Without those things, the panel concluded, the trial court had erred by changing the effective date to March 1, 2018, the first day of the month following service on Watson. The justices also noted that Fam C §17430(a) requires a trial court to enter a default judgment without the presentation of other evidence and §17430(b) provides that the proposed judgment will be entered as the final judgment. Moreover, they found, the respondent has the burden of proof as to whether he or she was not evading service. Where an alleged parent defaults, he or she cannot take advantage of the provision regarding evasion of service and Fam C §17430(a) governs, notwithstanding any other provision of the law. Summing up, the panel held that the trial court erred by amending the proposed judgment to eliminate 3 months of support. Accordingly, they reversed the judgment and remanded with directions to the trial court to enter the original proposed judgment with the effective date of December 1, 2017, as the final judgment.
The result here is not particularly surprising. We've all known for many years that getting money for kids is paramount, even if it can present a tricky thicket of statutes for a support obligor to navigate. When a proposed obligor simply defaults, as this case shows us, he or she cannot take advantage of the benefit that Fam C §4009 provides. Pro per litigants, or those who are relying on advice from agencies who may not later represent them, should be made aware of this wrinkle in the law; the appellate court will not cut them any slack if they don't strictly comply with statutory provisions.