If someone sues you, you are the “defendant” in the case. The person who sues you is the “plaintiff.” If you want to fight the case in court, you have to tell the court in writing. The way to respond to the complaint depends on where the case was filed.
If the case was filed in Circuit Court, the defendant usually files an answer. (In some cases, the defendant may file preliminary motions before or instead of the answer.) If the case was filed in District Court, the defendant usually files a notice of intention to defend and should include a defense that has merit. (For example, simply stating that you cannot afford to pay a debt may not be a good defense in a case, but explaining that the plaintiff claimed the wrong amount of debt may be a good defense). The defendant’s response must be filed within the court’s time limits. If you don’t tell the court that you want to fight the case, or if you don’t show up at court, the court may presume you don’t want to participate in the case.
If the court thinks you do not wish to fight the case, it may enter an order of default or a default judgment against you, giving the other side some or all of what they told the court they should get. In other words, if you don’t file the correct response within the time limits, you may lose your case by default, and end up owing the other side money.
What is an Order of Default?
An order of default is a court order saying that one party (usually the plaintiff) has won the case, and the defendant has lost, because the defendant did not participate in the case. The order of default does not settle the issue of how much money is owed. It simply declares that the defendant is liable to the plaintiff.
Usually this happens when the person who is being sued (the defendant), does not tell the court in writing that they want to fight the case against them. However, failure to answer the complaint is only one way to get an order of default entered against you. Another common way is to not show up at court when you are supposed to.
If the court enters an order of default, and the defendant still does not respond, the plaintiff can ask for a default judgment.
What is a Default Judgment?
A default judgment is a court order giving one side (usually the plaintiff) an award (usually money) against the defendant because the defendant has not told the court that they want to fight the case, or responded correctly to the order of default.
A default judgment may be entered following an order of default. Sometimes, after entering an order of default, the court will hold a hearing to decide how much money the defendant should pay. After the hearing, the court may order a default judgment in that amount.
In District Court, if a plaintiff has given the court an affidavit saying how much is owed, and if the defendant does not file a notice of intention to defend, then there may not ever be a hearing. In this case, the defendant may get a default judgment or “Affidavit Judgment” instead of an order of default.
Not answering a complaint is just one way to get a default judgment entered against you. Another common way is to not show up to court when you are supposed to.
How did I get this Default Judgment?
Here is the ordinary flow of a court case, up to the point at which a default may be entered.
Plaintiff files the complaint
At the beginning of a case, one party files a “complaint” with the court. A complaint is a paper that tells the court what the other side thinks you did wrong, why they think they should win the case, and why they should get what they have asked for. Many times a complaint asks the court to give the plaintiff a judgment against the defendant. A judgment may require the defendant to pay money to the plaintiff.
The papers must be “served” to the defendant
The plaintiff must have the defendant “served” with the complaint and other important paperwork (a summons, and usually a court form). Once the plaintiff believes the defendant has been served with the papers, they tell the court.
Defendant’s opportunity to respond
If you want to fight the case, you have to tell the court in writing, within the court’s time limits.
The usual way to respond to a complaint in Circuit Court is to file an answer. (In some cases, the defendant may file preliminary motions before or instead of the answer. See Maryland Rule 2-322.) The way to respond to a complaint in District Court is to file a notice of intention to defend. Read all the paperwork with the complaint to see where the case was filed, and how many days you have to respond.
Generally, if you are served in the State with a Circuit Court complaint, you have 30 days from the date of service to file your answer. Generally, if you are served in the State with a District Court complaint, you have 15 days from the date of service to file your notice of intention to defend.
If Defendant does not respond within the time limits, the court may enter an order of default.
In some cases, the court may even immediately enter a default judgment.
What if I file my response late?
The Court may or may not accept an answer or notice of intention to defend that is filed too late. The other side will probably tell the judge that you haven’t filed your response, or filed it too late, and will ask the Court to rule against you. You must explain to the judge the reason why you filed your response late (or not at all). It’s then up to the judge to decide whether he or she will accept the late response.
How do I know if I have a Default Judgment?
There are a few ways you can find out if there is a default judgment against you:
a. You should receive some paper from the court where the complaint was filed that says either: Order of Default, Default Judgment, or Affidavit Judgment. This tells you that an order has been entered against you. The court will mail this paper to the address that it has for you, even if this is not your current address.
b. If you have access to the internet, you can do a case search of the court’s records at www.courts.state.md.us under “search court records”.
c. You can call the clerk’s office for the court where the complaint was filed and see if they have record of any defaults against you.
How can I respond to an Order of Default from a Circuit Court?
Quickly. If you receive an Order of Default, and you want to fight the case, you can quickly file a “Motion to Vacate an Order of Default.” In this motion, you must tell the court that you want to contest the case and why you did not file your response in time. You must also state the legal and factual basis for your defense. In Circuit Court, you have 30 days from the date the order of default was entered (not from the date you received a copy of it) to file this motion. File the motion as soon as possible, because if you file it too late, you may permanently lose your opportunity to defend the case. In Circuit Court, if a final judgment has not been entered, the Court may or may not let you proceed with your case after the 30-day deadline passes.
What is a Motion to Vacate an Order of Default?
A Motion to Vacate is a written request, filed with the Clerk’s office, asking the court to undo the order of default and allow you to defend the case. In the motion, you must show the judge a good reason to allow your request and vacate the default. You must tell the judge why you did not file your response in time. You must also state the legal and factual basis for your defense.
How can I respond to a Default Judgment?
To challenge a default judgment, you can file a Motion to Strike a Default Judgment or a Motion to Amend a Default Judgment.
The rules for Circuit Court are different than for District Court.
If the Circuit Court correctly follows the rule and issues a default judgment against you, it cannot simply change its mind and decide to let you defend the case. However, if you file a motion within 30 days after the judgment is entered, you can ask the court to revise the relief it granted (for example, how much you owe the plaintiff.) In the motion, you must explain why the judgment should be changed.
In District Court, after the court enters a judgment on affidavit, the defendant has 30 days to file a Motion to Vacate a Judgment. The 30 days starts when the judgment is entered, not when the defendant gets notice of the judgment. In the motion, you must explain why the judgment should be changed.
What is a Motion to Strike/Amend/Vacate a Default Judgment?
A Motion to Strike a Default Judgment is a written request, filed with the Clerk’s office, asking the court to undo the default judgment. This is the same as a Motion to Vacate a Default Judgment. A Motion to Amend a Default Judgment is a written request, filed with the Clerk’s office, asking the court to change the relief granted in the default judgment.
If you file any of these motions, you must explain to the court why it should allow your request and change or undo the judgment. In other words, you will need to specifically tell the judge why the default judgment was entered wrongly, or was for the wrong amount.
My Motion to Vacate, or Strike, was Granted. What now?
If the court allows you to file an answer (in Circuit Court) or a notice of intention to defend (in District Court), file it right away. This is the way you tell the court that you want to fight the case, and the reasons why you don’t think you are responsible. The District Court may also reset your case for a trial and send you notice of the new date.
My Motion to Vacate, or Strike, was not Granted. What now?
If your Motion to Vacate Order of Default was not granted, you may still have an opportunity to contest the damages awarded to the other side. If you are successful, you may be able to reduce the amount of money the Court orders you to pay to the other side or negotiate a settlement with the other side.
If the court does not strike or vacate a default judgment, or change the relief granted, you have a judgment against you which you are legally responsible for paying.