Mediation Message No. 134


Grappo v. McMills (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 996 sends a strong statement to both attorneys and, in particular, the trial courts that applications for default judgments must be closely scrutinized and that only appropriate claims should be approved. In Grappo, appellant Donald Grappo, representing himself, filed a complaint alleging ten causes of action, seven of which were in one paragraph, the other three ranging from two paragraphs to five. The complaint named five defendants, two entities and three individuals, none of which or whom was described or identified. Grappo did not identify himself either, or describe any claimed connection or relationship with any of the defendants. He served the complaint on Kenneth McKean, who was named in the caption but not identified in the complaint—and who, from all indications, had no relationship with Grappo. Six months later, Grappo filed a request for default against McKean and his law firm (McKean & McMills), seeking a default judgment for $9,982,308.83, with a claimed itemization of damages not found in the complaint. The clerk entered the default, but the court refused to enter judgment, entering instead an order listing specific reasons for the refusal. McKean then died, of which Grappo was aware. Two weeks later, he filed another request for default and judgment which was not mailed to anyone. This request sought a judgment for $12,012,818.88, once again with numbers found nowhere in the complaint. In the declaration portion in the default request, Grappo referred to “$60,000,” an amount in the prayer for the claimed value of personal property referred to in the eighth cause of action “belonging to some of the heirs of the Michael A. Grappo 2003 Trust.” The court entered judgment for Grappo and against McKean and McKean & McMills for $60,000, plus costs of $750.

Defendants filed a motion to vacate and set aside the default judgment. Grappo appealed from a resulting order vacating the judgment as to McKean. The appellate court affirmed the order and published its opinion “to remind trial courts that however burdened they be, they must vigilantly attend to their duty in connection with the default process, to act as gatekeeper, ensuring that only the appropriate claims get through.’” (Id. at p. 1000; internal quotations omitted.) “The court’s role in the process of entering a default judgment is a serious, substantive, and often complicated one, and it must be treated as such.” (Id. at pp. 1013-1014, citing Kim v. Westmoore Partners, Inc. (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 267, 272-273.)

Grappo explained that had the trial court properly acted as a gatekeeper, the default judgment would not have been entered because, inter alia, the complaint did not identify the people or relationship of any of the people or entities named in the caption; the complaint did not comply with the pleading requirements in rule 2.112 of the California Rules of Court; Grappo was not the proper plaintiff because any alleged wrongs, if they had occurred, were against the Michael A. Grappo 2003 Trust and not Grappo; Grappo’s complaint did not state a claim for any loss of property; the claims of negligence and gross negligence were not supported by any allegations and the $60,000 awarded to Grappo was not supported by the complaint. (Id. at pp. 1013-1015.)

Judge Michael D. Marcus (Ret.)
ADR Services, Inc.
1900 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 250
Los Angeles, California 90067
(310) 201-0010

Copyright Michael D. Marcus, June 2017

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