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How to Overturn a Judgment: The Key Role of Bad Service

Countering Default Judgments: Your Guide to Challenging Improper Service

Improper service of the summons and complaint often is your primary weapon to seek relief against a judgment. Here's a blog post discussing the fundamental law involved in that process.

Establishing lack of personal jurisdiction due to improper service should be enough to get you a hearing on that issue. But I implore you to first get a copy of the affidavit of service and dispute every fact you can in your affidavit when starting the process. To get the affidavit of service, you can order it from the court or ask the collection law firm for it. Judges need to see you rebut the facts of service with specificity. Conclusory denials that you did not receive the papers is not enough.

If you dispute the affidavit of service with sufficient detail, it should be enough to get you a hearing as to service ("traverse hearing"). Collection lawyers will argue that you must also provide an "excuse" for not appearing in court and a "meritorious defense" to the underlying case. But Advisory Notice 13 confirms that a good showing of lack of personal jurisdiction (i.e. bad service) avoids the need to provide an excuse and a meritorious defense. Bring this notice to court.

Of course, it is always best to provide excuses and meritorious defense in addition to facts establishing bad service. The more robust your affidavit, the better. Civil court judges will be pleased with the effort you put in to protect yourself.

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The Significance of a Traverse Hearing in Challenging Service

A traverse hearing serves as a crucial juncture in your journey to contest a default judgment. This hearing specifically addresses the validity of the service of process and is your opportunity to present evidence that the service was not in accordance with legal standards. It's essential to prepare meticulously for this hearing by gathering substantial evidence to support your claims of improper service.

During the traverse hearing, the burden of proof initially lies with the plaintiff to demonstrate that the service was executed properly. Once they present their evidence, typically through an affidavit of service, you have the right to counter with detailed factual denials. This can include discrepancies in the service process, such as incorrect address, timing issues, or any other aspect that deviates from the legal requirements.

If the court finds that the service was indeed improper, it may result in the judgment being vacated due to lack of personal jurisdiction. This is because proper service is a cornerstone of due process and is necessary for the court to exercise jurisdiction over an individual.

While preparing for the hearing, consider these additional strategies:

  • Review the process server's affidavit against your own records and personal recollections of the relevant dates.
  • Gather any supporting documents that corroborate your version of events, such as dated proof of residence at a different address or travel records.
  • Prepare to testify at the hearing about the service process, if required.
  • Seek legal advice to ensure your rights are fully protected and to navigate the legal intricacies of the hearing process.

Remember, the aim of the traverse hearing is not to dispute the debt itself but to challenge the manner in which the legal proceedings were brought against you. If successful, it provides a path to dispute the underlying claim properly and fairly in court.

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What is CPLR § 317:

CPLR § 317, a provision within the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR), allows defendants to challenge a default judgment against them under specific circumstances. Here's the gist:

  • This applies when you weren't served the summons in person (e.g., by mail instead).

  • You have one year to act after learning about the judgment but no more than five years after it was entered.

  • You must convince the court you had no real chance to defend yourself because you didn't get the notice and that you have a legitimate defense to the lawsuit.

  • If successful, the court can reverse the judgment.

This rule doesn't apply to divorce, annulment, or partition lawsuits.

When can you use CPLR § 317:

Here's a more detailed breakdown:


  • You, the defendant, were sued in New York State.

  • The summons (legal document initiating the lawsuit) wasn't delivered to you personally or to an authorized agent designated to receive legal documents on your behalf (as outlined in CPLR rule 318). Instead, service might have been through certified mail or other alternative methods.

  • Unaware of the lawsuit, you didn't respond to the summons, leading to a default judgment being entered against you.

Relief under CPLR § 317:

  • This rule allows you to potentially request the court to vacate (set aside) the default judgment.

  • You have one year to take action after you gain knowledge of the judgment's existence. There's an additional five-year limit from the date the judgment was entered.

Requirements for Relief:

  • You must convince the court that:

    • You genuinely did not receive timely notice of the summons due to the alternative service method.

    • You have a meritorious defense to the original lawsuit. This means you have a legitimate legal reason why the judgment shouldn't have been entered against you.


  • If successful, the court can vacate the default judgment and allow you to defend the lawsuit.

  • The court might also order restitution, which means the other party (plaintiff) would have to return any benefits they gained from the default judgment.

Important Considerations:

  • CPLR 317 doesn't apply to lawsuits involving divorce, annulment, or property division.

  • The burden of proof lies with you to demonstrate you didn't receive proper notice and have a valid defense.

  • This is a complex legal situation. Consulting with an attorney experienced in New York civil procedure is highly recommended. They can guide you through the process, assess your specific case, and represent you in court if necessary.

Additional Resources:

  • You can find the full text of CPLR 317 below:

§ 317. Defense by person to whom summons not personally delivered

A person served with a summons other than by personal delivery to him or to his agent for service designated under rule 318, within or without the state, who does not appear may be allowed to defend the action within one year after he obtains knowledge of entry of the judgment, but in no event more than five years after such entry, upon a finding of the court that he did not personally receive notice of the summons in time to defend and has a meritorious defense. If the defense is successful, the court may direct and enforce restitution in the same manner and subject to the same conditions as where a judgment is reversed or modified on appeal. This section does not apply to an action for divorce, annulment or partition. N.Y. C.P.L.R. 317 (McKinney)

To summarize:

Based on CPLR 317, the defendant has the longer of the two deadlines to vacate a default judgment:

  • One year after they obtain knowledge of the judgment entry.
  • Five years after the judgment entry (absolute deadline).

This section applies when the defendant was served with a summons through a method other than personal delivery and they can demonstrate:

  1. They did not receive actual notice of the summons in time to defend the lawsuit.
  2. They have a meritorious defense to the claim.

Meritorious Defenses:

Meritorious defenses under CPLR § 317 refer to legitimate legal arguments you can present in court to convince the judge that the original lawsuit against you shouldn't have resulted in a default judgment. These defenses can vary depending on the nature of the original lawsuit, but here are some common examples:

  • Full or Partial Payment: The debt has been fully or partially settled, and evidence such as receipts or bank statements can prove this payment.
  • Statute of Limitations (expiration of time): The time limit for the creditor to file a lawsuit for the debt collection has expired, rendering the action untimely and unenforceable.
  • Prior or Ongoing Dispute: There exists a dispute over the debt or terms of the agreement that has not been resolved, questioning the validity of the claim.
  • Sued at the Wrong Address: The legal action was initiated using incorrect contact information, potentially violating procedural rules or due process rights.
  • Incorrect Amount: The amount claimed is inaccurate, and documentation can prove the actual amount owed is less or null.
  • Identity Theft: The debt was incurred by someone else using the defendant's identity fraudulently, not by the defendant.
  • Wrong Party: The defendant is incorrectly identified as the debtor; the actual debtor is someone else.
  • Unauthorized Changes: Changes were made to the account or contract without the defendant's knowledge or consent, affecting the validity of the debt.
  • Sudden Closure of Account: The account was closed unexpectedly by the creditor or bank without proper notification or justification.
  • Inadequate Dispute Review: The creditor did not adequately review or address disputes raised by the defendant regarding the debt.
  • Lack of Standing (No Prior Agreement or Relationship to Plaintiff/Creditor): The plaintiff does not have the legal right to sue because they have no legitimate connection or agreement with the defendant.
  • Unfair or Abusive Collection Practices: The creditor engaged in practices that violate fair debt collection laws, potentially nullifying the lawsuit.
  • Fraud by Family Member or Third Party, Including Forgery: The debt was incurred through fraudulent actions by someone known to the defendant or a third party, without the defendant's consent.
  • Fraud by Creditor or its Attorney: The creditor or their legal representation engaged in deceitful behavior in relation to the debt or lawsuit.
  • Underage Party Lacking "Capacity" to Form a Contract: The defendant was underage and legally unable to enter into the contract that led to the debt, making it voidable.
  • I Do Not Recognize this Debt | My Bills Were All Paid: The defendant does not acknowledge the debt as theirs, suggesting all obligations were previously settled.

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