The judicial system is designed to ensure that the person sued receives early notice of the action and can appear and present her side of the argument. That means that an individual is likely to know if she is a defendant in litigation. If a judgment is filed against her, she will receive a copy in the mail. Alternatively, she can obtain a copy at the court clerk's office in the courthouse where the judgment is entered.
Obtaining a Copy of a Judgment
When a person has notice of a lawsuit and participates in it, obtaining a copy of the judgment is an easy matter. Due process requires that a defendant is notified when a complaint is filed against him, and this constitutional protection is built into the court system.
Most states require that a defendant must be personally handed a copy of the legal document initiating the case, usually called a petition or a complaint, together with a summons advising him of the case number and his time frame for responding. In cases in which the defendant cannot be found, the court can permit other methods of advising him about the suit, such as service by leaving a copy of the documents with someone in charge of his office.
If the defendant responds to the complaint and participates in the case, he is sent a copy of every document filed in the case. This would include any requests for trial or default judgment, so he would know whether a judgment was filed against him. To obtain another copy of the judgment, he can go to the court clerk with the case number. For a small fee, the clerk will copy the judgment for him.
Locating a Default Judgment
If a person is sued but is never given notice of the action, a default judgment may have been entered against her without her knowledge. This should never happen in a court case, since the plaintiff is required to be served with the summons and complaint. But it does happen occasionally, such as when the wrong address was used or mistakes were made in service. The court believes that the defendant was served but chooses not to appear, so it enters a default judgment against her.
The defendant may learn of the case for the first time when she sees a default judgment listed in her credit report or when she gets a letter or a phone call from collection attorneys. The news might also arrive in the form of a bank account freeze or a garnishee notice from her payroll department.
To locate the judgment, she must track down the case in the court in which it is filed. The case number will be listed in any written documents seeking to enforce the judgment, any letters from collection attorneys, and any type of enforcement action against her accounts. She should take that case number to the court that entered it and ask the court clerk for a copy of the judgment or visit the court files online. Alternatively, she can use one of the online judgment search engines to check for the judgment specifics.
Read More: What Happens After a Default Judgment?
Dealing With a Default Judgment
If the plaintiff falsely represented to the court that the defendant was served to obtain a default judgment, the defendant can ask the court to set aside the default. He should get an attorney on the case as quickly as possible to explain to the court what happened.
This can prevent the plaintiff from taking action to collect a money judgment, like filing liens against the defendant's real estate or attaching his accounts. The plaintiff may be able to start the litigation again, but this time, the defendant can appear and argue the matter.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.