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Barbour v. Sangha

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

May 30, 2018

SANGHA et al.


          Phipps, Senior Appellate Judge.

         This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of plaintiff Michael Barbour's motion for entry of default judgment against defendant Dr. Sumandeep Sangha after Dr. Sangha's answer was rejected by the Fayette County State Court e-filing system. After a hearing, the trial court denied Barbour's motion and also found that the motion lacked substantial justification such that an award of attorney fees under OCGA § 9-15-14 (b) was warranted. On appeal, Barbour argues that the trial court erred when it ordered Dr. Sangha's answer to be accepted as timely and denied Barbour's motion for default judgment without an evidentiary hearing, that the court should have considered whether opening default was appropriate, and that the court also erred when it found him liable for attorney fees. We affirm the trial court's denial of the motion for default judgment, but we vacate that court's finding of liability for attorney fees and remand for further proceedings limited to that issue.

         We review the denial of a motion for entry of default judgment only for an abuse of discretion. Edenfield & Cox, P. C. v. Mack, 282 Ga.App. 816, 816 (640 S.E.2d 343) (2006). "[D]efault judgment is a drastic sanction that should be invoked only in extreme situations. Whenever possible, cases should be decided on their merits, for default judgment is not favored in law." Thomas v. Brown, 308 Ga.App. 514, 517 (3) (707 S.E.2d 900) (2011) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         The relevant facts are undisputed. On May 31, 2016, plaintiff Michael Barbour filed the instant medical malpractice lawsuit against defendant Dr. Sumandeep Sangha in Fayette County State Court. Barbour served the complaint on Dr. Sangha on June 2, 2016. On July 5, 2016, Dr. Sangha's counsel electronically filed an answer, a demand for a jury trial, a motion to dismiss and brief in support, and a request for oral argument, and received an acknowledgment of the filings from the Peach Court e-filing system the same day.[1] Defense counsel also served Barbour's counsel with the filings via U.S. Mail and mailed courtesy copies to the judge's chambers. On July 6, 2016, the clerk's office sent an email to defense counsel's registered e-filer, Victoria Lockard, that the filings had been rejected because "the signatures of the documents do not match the credentials of the filer." Lockard did not see this email.

         On July 12, 2016, the trial court's staff attorney sent an email to both sides confirming receipt of Dr. Sangha's motion to dismiss, but also stating that the Clerk's office had not received the filings and asking Dr. Sangha to refile the motion. Later that day, the staff attorney also noted via email that the Clerk had not received Dr. Sangha's answer. Defense counsel then learned that the Clerk had rejected the filings because the signatures on some of the documents (by Lori Cohen) did not match Lockard's credentials. Although Dr. Sangha's answer was one of the documents rejected, no such mismatch occurred on that document, which was signed by Lockard herself. Defense counsel refiled the answer, the motion to dismiss, and the remaining documents previously filed with corrected signature lines that same day.

         On July 15, 2016, defense counsel Jessica Odom contacted the Clerk's office to confirm acceptance of the refiled pleadings and to inquire about the costs associated with opening any presumed default under OCGA § 9-11-55 (a).[2] An officer worker told Odom that the docket showed an answer filed on July 12 and that it was therefore not necessary for Dr. Sangha to pay any costs.

         On August 8, 2016, however, after the 15-day period to open default as a matter of right had expired, Barbour filed a motion for entry of default judgment. After a hearing at which the trial court noted that the relevant facts were not in dispute, the court entered an order finding that Dr. Sangha's answer had been "timely filed and properly signed by the registered filer" and that the answer had been rejected "solely due to the purported protocol of the PeachCourt e-filing system and the actions of the Clerk of Court." Citing Uniform Superior Court Rule 36.16 (F), which grants a court the power to "enter appropriate relief" in cases in which "electronic filing or service is prevented or delayed because of a failure of the electronic filing system, " the trial court instructed its Clerk to mark Dr. Sangha's answer as filed and docketed nunc pro tunc as of July 5, 2016. The trial court also found that Barbour's "hyper-technical" motion for default judgment "lacked substantial justification and unnecessarily expanded the proceedings, causing undue expense" to Dr. Sangha, such that an award of reasonable attorney fees was appropriate under OCGA § 9-15-14 (b). The court thus denied Barbour's motion for default judgment, denied Dr. Sangha's motion to open default as moot, and reserved its determination of the amount of attorney fees for a later evidentiary hearing. The trial court also granted Barbour a certificate of immediate review as required by OCGA § 5-6-34 (b). We granted Barbour's application for interlocutory review, and this appeal followed.

         1. As a preliminary matter, Barbour is incorrect to assert that the trial court refused to hold an evidentiary hearing. The transcript of the hearing shows that the first issue addressed there was whether there was any need for witness testimony in addition to the parties' previous submissions, including a timeline and the exhibits attached to their pleadings and motions, detailing the evidence outlined above. After hearing argument, the trial court found that no such testimony was necessary in light of the undisputed facts laid out in those filings. The record also shows that after the court's ruling on this issue, the parties agreed, without objection from Barbour, to refer to a binder prepared by the defense, and provided to plaintiffs and the court, containing the relevant filings and their exhibits, all of which appear in the appellate record.

         2. Barbour also argues that the trial court erred in ordering Dr. Sangha's answer docketed and filed as of July 5, 2016 and thus in denying Barbour's motion for default judgment. We disagree.

         A trial court has broad discretion to correct clerical errors including a clerk's failure to mark a document as filed on the date that document is actually delivered to the clerk. Forsyth v. Hale, 166 Ga.App. 340, 343 (304 S.E.2d 81) (1983); see also Gibbs v. Spencer Industries, 244 Ga. 450, 450-451 (260 S.E.2d 342) (1979) (the proper date of a filing is an issue for the trial court to resolve). This case concerns the application of this discretion in the context of Uniform Superior Court Rule 36.16, which provides in relevant part:

(C) Signatures. An electronically filed document is deemed signed by the registered filer submitting the document as well as by any other person who has authorized signature by the filer. By electronically filing the document, the filer verifies that the signatures are authentic.
(D) Time of filing. An electronic document is presumed filed upon its receipt by the electronic filing service provider, which provider must automatically confirm the fact, date and time of receipt to the filer. Absent evidence ...

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