Indiana Court of Appeals Reminds That Judgments Cannot be Entered Without Personal Jurisdiction

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by: Colin E. Flora

     We have often discussed jurisdiction in the context of subject-matter jurisdiction—i.e., whether a specific court has jurisdiction to decide the issues before it—but we have only occasionally discussed personal jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals of Indiana has given us just such an occasion by ruling on whether a Wisconsin judgment against a former-Indiana citizen was void.

     Personal jurisdiction generally arises in one of two ways: either the state in which the lawsuit is filed lacks sufficient contacts with the defendant as to the matters at issue in the case or the court has failed to properly serve the defendant with notice of the case, which typically is accomplished by service of a summons and copy of the complaint. In Indiana and other states, courts do not have personal jurisdiction over a party until that party is properly served. On occasion, service may be made in a manner other than by providing a summons and copy of the complaint, but such methods are generally more restricted. That said, personal service is generally not required in Indiana.

     That takes us to today’s case. The origin of Troxel v. Ward began simply enough. In November 2014, Plan Administrators, Inc. filed suit against Troxel and the company he owned. That case was filed in Wisconsin, where Plan Administrators is located. The case was over a breach of a $653k promissory note. Plan Administrators attempted service on Troxel in Indiana by leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at what turns out to be Troxel’s former home in Indiana. That is because, in late 2013 or early 2014, Troxel moved to Florida. Since Troxel no longer lived there, he did not receive service. Because he did not receive service, he never appeared in the Wisconsin case. And, because he never appeared in the Wisconsin case, default judgment was entered against him.

     Notably, the method of service used is not one directly provided for by Wisconsin procedure. Instead, Wisconsin’s rules provide that “the defendant may be served in another state according to that state’s service rules.” Accordingly, the method of service was as permitted by Indiana Trial Rule 4.1(A)(3), which allows service on an individual by “leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at his dwelling house or usual place of abode.”

     The following year, “Plan Administrators filed in LaPorte Circuit Court a Notice of Filing of Foreign Judgment and a Complaint to Enforce Foreign Judgment against Troxel pursuant to Indiana Code chapter 34-54-11, Indiana’s Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (UEFJA). As part of that process, a summons and complaint were sent to Troxel, again at his Indiana address, which were kicked back marked “returned to sender and unable to forward.” Still, Plan Administrators initiated proceedings supplemental and obtained an order for the sale of shares of stock owned by Troxel to cover the judgment. Before the shares could be sold, Plan Administrators assigned its judgment to Dale Ward, hence why the case is titled Troxel v. Ward.

     “After learning of the sale of his Adaptasoft stock, Troxel filed a motion to set aside the sale pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)in August 2017. Following a hearing, the LaPorte Circuit Court issued an order denying the motion to set aside.” And Troxel appealed.

     The question on appeal was simply whether the Wisconsin judgment was valid. If it was, then the shares were properly sold. If not, then there was no judgment to collect upon. As the court summarized:

Troxel contends, among other things, that the LaPorte Circuit Court’s order authorizing the sale of his Adaptasoft stock is void pursuant to Trial Rule 60(B)(6)because he “was not properly served with either the institution of the underlying [Indiana] action or the attempt to sell his Adaptasoft stock.” Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(6) provides that a court may relieve a party from a judgment, including a default judgment, because the judgment is void. Rather than addressing whether Troxel was properly notified of the Indiana proceedings, we find that the LaPorte Circuit Court’s order authorizing the sale of Troxel’s stock is void for purposes of Trial Rule 60(B)(6) for a more fundamental reason. That is, “[a] judgment which is void in the state where it is entered is also void in Indiana” and cannot be the basis for a subsequent judgment in Indiana.

     The Court began its thorough analysis by recognizing that the United States Constitution’s full-faith-and-credit mandate still permits “collateral attacks for lack of personal or subject-matter jurisdiction.” As a result, a judgment that is invalid due to lack of jurisdiction in the issuing court cannot be enforced in Indiana. There is, however, a rebuttable presumption that the judgment is enforceable. In this instance, Troxel was able to carry his burden.

     In order to determine whether the judgment was valid, the court must “apply the law of the state where the judgment was rendered.” Ward argued that there was no evidence to support finding the Wisconsin court lacked jurisdiction. The court disagreed:

But there is such evidence. In accordance with the Wisconsin service rules, Plan Administrators attempted to serve Troxel pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 4.1(A)(3), which provides that service may be made on an individual by “leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at his dwelling house or usual place of abode.” Plan Administrators argued that leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at 106 E. Montgomery Street in Francesville, Indiana, satisfied Indiana Trial Rule 4.1(A)(3) because the documents were left “at the dwelling.” 

However, service upon a defendant’s former residence is not sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction. Here, the Affidavit of Service, submitted by Plan Administrators, establishes that [the Indiana address] was not Troxel’s dwelling house or usual place of abode when the process server left the summons and complaint there on December 29, 2014. The Affidavit of Service provides that on four separate occasions the process server went to the property but there was “no response.” Moreover, the process server stated that the property was “vacant” with “no one . . . living there now.”The process server also spoke with several people in the area, and it was believed that Troxel had moved from the vacant address two to three weeks earlier. Even if we assume that Troxel had previously lived [there], it was not his dwelling house or usual place of abode when service was attempted . . . . Accordingly, Troxel was not properly served with notice of the Wisconsin lawsuit pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 4.1(A)(3).

     Because, under both Indiana and Wisconsin law, a court lacks personal jurisdiction over a party until such time as the party is properly served, the lack of proper service deprived the Wisconsin court of personal jurisdiction over Troxel. Indeed, as the Indiana court added, “Wisconsin compels strict compliance with its service rules even though the consequences may appear to be harsh.” Adhering to both state’s laws, the conclusion was inescapable: the“default judgment against [Troxel] and therefore that judgment is void. Accordingly, any Indiana orders based on the void Wisconsin judgment are also void.” The end result was that the Court of Appeals ordered the LaPorte Circuit Court to vacate its order authorizing the sale of Troxel’s stock,” meaning Troxel should get those shares back, at least for now.

     If there is still enough time under the applicable Wisconsin statute of limitations, there may yet be a renewed collection action filed against Troxel. Still, at least for now, it Troxel will be able to keep his shares.

     The court provided us one last bit of insight, by way of a late footnote in the opinion that merits note. In short, just letting a party’s attorney know about the case isn’t enough for the purposes of service, at least not in Indiana and Wisconsin:

Ward nevertheless argues that the Wisconsin court had personal jurisdiction over Troxel because Plan Administrators’ attorney informed Troxel’s attorney about the Wisconsin lawsuit in a telephone call. Even if Troxel knew about the Wisconsin lawsuit from his attorney . . . it is the law in both Wisconsin and Indiana that the mere fact that a defendant has knowledge of the action does not grant a court personal jurisdiction.

     Join us again next time for further discussion of developments in the law.

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*Disclaimer: The author is licensed to practice in the state of Indiana. The information contained above is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. Laws vary by state and region. Furthermore, the law is constantly changing. Thus, the information above may no longer be accurate at this time. No reader of this content, clients or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included herein without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue.