If you detail a procedure, you must make sure you demonstrate that it was followed

When vacating a default in the Second Department based upon law office failure, the proponent of the motion must produce admissible evidence explaining the nature and extent of the law office failure.  What is important to appreciate is that if a procedure is in place to assure that a default will not occur, then it must be explained why the procedure was not followed.  This is what the Appellate Term stated in A.B. Med. Servs., PLLC v GLI Corporate Risk Solutions, Inc., 2009 NY Slip Op 52322(U)(App. Term 2d Dept. 2009):

“Plaintiffs’ allegation of law office failure is factually insufficient (see Robinson v New York  City Tr. Auth., 203 AD2d 351 [1994]), in that they failed to explain whether the normal two-part procedure for assigning a per diem attorney to cover a court appearance, as outlined in their submission to the court, was followed in its entirety. Accordingly, plaintiffs’ motion to vacate the prior order was properly denied. in a particular case.”

A default that is more than meets the eyes

The one thing that we can all say about Second Department practice, whether it be at the Appellate Term or the Appellate Division, is that the decision/orders of these courts never elucidate upon the facts of a given matter. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are on the losing side of a case. But when a case has lived an interesting life, it would be nice to know what happened.

While the Appellate Division’s decision tells a different story, a review of the record of appeal in Mercury Cas. Co. v. Surgical Center at Milburn, LLC, 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 06516 (2d Dept. 2009), shows us that this is not your every day run of the mill “default” case.

This case started as a $12,000 no-fault AAA arbitration, where the Defendant sought to recover for surgery services performed on its Assignor. Plaintiff denied the claim on the basis that the surgery was not causally related to the motor vehicle accident. In support of this defense, Plaintiff presented the report of a radiologist who, upon a review of the applicable MRI films, found that the injuries were pre-existing, degenerative and not related to the underlying motor vehicle accident.

The lower arbitrator, upon a review of the record, did not find the Plaintiff’s proof convincing and awarded Defendant the principle sum of $12,000, along with interest, costs and attorney fees. It is not uncommon these days for an insurance carrier to lose in arbitration.

Plaintiff, as would be expected, filed a master arbitral demand and perfected its master arbitral brief. Similarly, Defendant proceeded to perfect his master arbitral brief. Following due deliberation, the master arbitrator upheld the award of the lower arbitrator, finding that the award was not defective as a matter of law. This decision was probably correct.

Since the amount in controversy, however, exceeded $5,000, Plaintiff sought a trial denovo. In this regard, a summons and complaint, fashioned as an action seeking a declaration that the surgery was not related to the motor vehicle accident, was filed with the Supreme Court and served upon Defendant. The action seeking a declaratory judgment spelled out the procedural history and the nature of the defense to the underlying no-fault claim.

Defendant failed to timely answer or move, and Plaintiff moved for leave to enter a default judgment against Defendant. Defendant opposed the motion, but failed to set forth a reasonable excuse or any evidence to support a potentially meritorious defense. All Defendant attached to his answering papers were the proofs he presented at the lower arbitration. In order to raise a potentially meritorious defense, Defendant would have had to obtain a radiology review that contradicted, point by point, Plaintiff’s own film review. As to the proof necessary to defeat a causation defense predicated upon a radiology review, please see my prior posts.

The Supreme Court denied Plaintiff’s motion. A notice of appeal was promptly filed. At the Appellate Division, Plaintiff moved to stay the Supreme Court case, pending the outcome and determination of the appeal. This motion was granted. The appeal was then perfected. Following due deliberation, the order of the Supreme Court was reversed and Plaintiff’s motion was granted. Consequently, the matter was remitted to the Supreme Court for the purpose of entering a judgment, declaring that the surgery was not causally related to the motor vehicle accident.

Here are a few thoughts. First, it would appear that the collateral estoppel consequences of this type of a decision are huge, as I have opined in previous posts. The second thing, and one of a practical matter, is that a demand for a trial denovo, in this type of proceeding, should be commenced as a declaratory judgment type of action. There are other ways to commence a trial de-novo, but these methods are not as effective or efficient as commencing it through a declaratory judgment action.

Claims office failure is excusable in certain instances

Urban Radiology, P.C. v American Tr. Ins. Co. 2009 NY Slip Op 51734(U)(App. Term 2d Dept. 2009)

“In the case at bar, defendant’s no-fault supervisor, who was also the claims representative who handled the instant claims, submitted an affidavit in which he stated that defendant had lost the file containing the summons and complaint and had not found out about the default until June 25, 2007. The record also indicates that defendant’s attorney initiated the instant motion to vacate the default judgment promptly in July 2007.”

It is nice to see the courts allowing the claims offices some leeway in vacating defaults. The law in the Second Department used to be that claims office failure was always fatal to the vacatur of a default. The law has steadily evolved, and now under appropriate circumstances, claims office failure may form the basis to vacate a default.

What troubled me, however, was that the default was only partially vacated. Thus, if someone brought a multisuit with many assignors, the default would be vacated only as to the causes of action where there was a meritorious defense. This makes sense in the abstract. But since the causes of action would most likely be severable had a timely answer been interposed, a defendant’s default in answering appears to give the plaintiff an inordinate advantage through promoting the joining of unrelated actions, in the first instance.

Med Mal and Procedural case

This is similar to the cases where a peer doctor fails to review sufficient documentation before arriving at an opinion.

“Lack of Foundation to form an expert opinion”

Luu v Paskowski
2008 NY Slip Op 10135 (2d Dept. 2008)

The pertinent portion of this case is as follows:

“[Plaintiff’s expert] Zola did not refer to any part of the hospital records, and did not state when the blood loss occurred or how it caused the small bowel obstruction and hematoma. Zola made no reference to any of the hospital records in his affidavit, and did not state that he had reviewed the pleadings and depositions. Zola’s affidavit was conclusory and lacked a foundation (see Thompson v Orner, 36 AD3d at 792; Furey v Kraft, 27 AD3d at 418).

Procedural – default viz a vi failure to obtain an adjournment on the record

Diamond v Diamante
2008 NY Slip Op 10117 (2d Dept. 2008)

“plaintiffs and their attorney, nonparty James D. Reddy, appeal from a judgmentwhich, inter alia, upon the denial of the plaintiffs’ application for an adjournment, is in favor of the defendants and against the plaintiff, dismissing the complaint, and against the nonparty James D. Reddy awarding costs and imposing sanctions.”

“Where, as here, the order appealed from was made upon the plaintiffs’ default, “review is limited to matters which were the subject of contest below” (Matter of Constance P. v Avraam G., 27 AD3d 754, 755 [internal quotations marks omitted]; see James v Powell, 19 NY2d 249, 256 n 3; Wexler v Wexler, 34 AD3d 458, 459; Brown v Data Communications, 236 AD2d 499). [*2]Accordingly, in this case, review is limited to the denial of the plaintiffs’ request for an adjournment, on the appeal by the plaintiffs, and the award of costs and imposition of sanctions against nonparty James D. Reddy, on the appeal by the nonparty (see Matter of Paulino v Camacho, 36 AD3d 821, 822; Tun v Aw, 10 AD3d 651, 652).

Turning to the merits, “[t]he granting of an adjournment for any purpose is a matter resting within the sound discretion of the trial court” (Matter of Anthony M., 63 NY2d 270, 283; see Matter of Steven B., 6 NY3d 888, 889; Matter of Sicurella v Embro, 31 AD3d 651, lv denied 7 NY3d 717), and its determination will not be disturbed absent an improvident exercise of that discretion (see Davidson v Davidson, 54 AD3d 988). “In making such a determination, the court must undertake a balanced consideration of all relevant factors” (Matter of Sicurella v Embro, 31 AD3d at 651), including “the merit or lack of merit of the action, extent of the delay,” the number of adjournments granted, the “lack of intent to deliberately default or abandon the action” and the length of the pendency of the proceeding (Belsky v Lowell, 117 AD2d 575, 576; see Matter of Claburn v Claburn, 128 AD2d 937, 938).”