FROM THE PHILLIPS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. CV 2008-144]
HONORABLE L.T. SIMES II, JUDGE
Lawrence W. Jackson, for appellant.
Law Firm, by: Jimmie L. Wilson, for appellee.
W. GRUBER, Judge.
Phillips County Circuit Court entered a default judgment
against the appellant, the Helena-West Helena Public School
District (the district), when it failed to respond to a
complaint filed by appellee Adriane Shields. After the court
denied the district's motion to set aside the default
judgment, it held another hearing and awarded damages,
compensatory and punitive, and attorney's fees to
Shields. The district appeals, challenging the entry of the
default judgment, the court's failure to set aside the
default judgment, and the award of damages to
Shields. We hold that Shields failed to obtain
proper service of process on the district. Therefore, the
circuit court erred in entering a default judgment against
the district and further erred in failing to set aside the
default judgment. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the
circuit court and dismiss Shields's complaint.
was under written contract as a secretary for the district
for the 2007–08 school year. In November 2007, she was
terminated from her position after she refused an offer to
resign. In April 2008, Shields filed suit alleging that she
had been illegally terminated. The complaint asserted causes
of action for breach of contract and violation of the
Arkansas Civil Rights Act and sought compensatory and
punitive damages and attorney's fees.
summons was issued for Rudolph Howard, the district's
then superintendent. A deputy sheriff purportedly effected
service of the summons and complaint on May 17, 2008. The
return, filed on July 24, 2008, had a check on the space
designating service on an agent but did not otherwise
identify the person served or the location where service was
made. The return also gave a general physical description of
the person served. No response to the complaint was filed by
the district and, in September 2008, Shields moved for
further happened in the case until a notice of a May 23, 2011
hearing on the motion for default judgment was sent to
attorney Vandall Bland by the circuit court's case
coordinator. At that hearing, the district argued that it had
never been served and had no notice of the lawsuit until it
received the notice for the hearing. The district further
argued that Superintendent Howard would have been the proper
person to serve with the complaint. When the district
proffered a photograph of Howard, the court sustained
Shields's objection. After taking the matter under
advisement, the court entered a one-sentence order granting
the motion for default judgment in September 2011.
district moved to vacate the default judgment, arguing it had
never been served and that it had meritorious defenses. In
support of its motion, the district submitted the affidavit
of Superintendent Howard denying that he was served with the
summons and complaint and containing his physical
description. The court denied the district's motion,
finding that the district was properly served and that the
return of service was sufficient proof.
district also filed an answer to Shields's complaint. As
an affirmative defense, the district alleged that service was
void and improper and that more than 120 days had elapsed
without proper service.
a hearing on damages, the parties submitted proposed findings
of fact and conclusions of law. On January 15, 2013, the
circuit court entered an order awarding Shields various
damages. Shields I, supra, at 2. After the
district moved to set aside or vacate the order and for a new
trial, the circuit court entered an order purporting to
finalize Shields's damages. Id. at 2–3.
dismissed the district's appeal. Shields I,
supra. We held that the orders appealed from were
not final in that they contemplated further action and that
they did not calculate a precise award of damages. We
directed the circuit court to calculate certain damages and
the attorney's fees in dollars and cents.
remand from Shields I, the circuit court entered an
order on February 17, 2015, specifying all of the damages and
attorney's fees awarded to Shields. The district timely
moved to set aside or vacate the order and for a new trial,
renewing its contention that it still had not been properly
served with process. There was no action taken on the
district's posttrial motion, and it was deemed denied by
operation of law on March 30, 2015. This appeal followed.
the district argues nine points on appeal, the dispositive
issue in this case is whether the circuit court erred in
finding that the district was properly served under Rule 4 of
the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure. Because default
judgments rendered without valid service of process are void,
we review the circuit court's denial of the motion to set
aside the judgment using a de novo standard. Nucor Corp.
v. Kilman, 358 Ark. 107, 118, 186 S.W.3d 720, 727
of valid process is necessary to give a court jurisdiction
over a defendant. Unknown Heirs of Warbington v. First
Cmty. Bank, 2011 Ark. 280, 383 S.W.3d 384. It is well
settled that service-of-process requirements, being in
derogation of common-law rights, must be strictly construed,
and compliance with them must be exact. First Cmty.
Bank, supra; Carruth v. Design Interiors,
Inc., 324 Ark. 373, 921 S.W.2d 944 (1996). Further,
default judgments are void due to defective ...