Default judgment proceedings are governed by Rule 3215 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules ("CPLR"). A plaintiff seeking a default judgment must do so within one year of the default and, depending on the type of claim, the application can be made either to the clerk of court or the court.1 Thus, if the claim is "for a sum certain or for a sum which can by computation be made certain," the application may be made to the clerk of court.2 In all other cases, the application must be made to the court.3 Additionally, a plaintiff must submit certain proof in support of its application, including sufficient proof of the facts constituting the claim;4 although, on occasion, a default judgment will be entered despite sufficient proof of claim, particularly in cases submitted to the clerk of court because the determination of whether sufficient proof has been presented involves the exercise of legal judgment and judicial discretion and the clerk of court lacks the authority to perform judicial functions.
For years, the departments of the Appellate Division of New York Supreme Court were split on whether a plaintiff's failure to submit sufficient proof of its claim when applying for a default judgment rendered the default judgment a nullity -- the First and the Third Departments had concluded that such a default judgment was a nullity while the Second Department viewed it as merely voidable.5 This split, in turn, made it more difficult for defendants to know when to move to vacate the judgment and what proof to proffer to persuade the court to vacate it. Recently, in Manhattan Telecommunications Corporation v. H&A Locksmith, Inc.6, the New York Court of Appeal finally settled this split of authority, holding that a default judgment obtained without sufficient proof is not void and, therefore, not a nullity; a plaintiff's failure to submit supporting evidence renders the judgment merely voidable.
In Manhattan Telecommunications Corporation, the plaintiff did not comply with the CPLR 3215(f) requirements, having failed to attach to its default judgment application the agreement that the defendants allegedly breached. Within one year of the entry of the default judgment, one of the defendants moved to vacate it, asserting that his default was excusable and that his defense was meritorious. The Supreme Court, New York County, denied the motion, finding that the delay was not excusable. The First Department reversed, holding that the default judgment was a nullity because the plaintiff had failed to provide evidence that the defendant in question was liable for the stated claims.7
The issue raised on appeal to the Court of Appeal was whether the defect -- failure to supply "proof of the facts constituting the claim" -- was jurisdictional, "i.e., whether it was so fundamental that it deprived the court of power to enter the judgment, rendering the judgment a nullity or whether [the defendant's] default was excusable or not."8 The Court of Appeals held that a default judgment entered despite a plaintiff's failure to submit sufficient proof of its claim as required by CPLR 3215(f) is an error that can be corrected by the "means provided by law -- i.e., by an application for relief from the judgment pursuant to CPLR 5015."9
Consequently, it is now clear that non-compliance with the proof requirements in CPLR 3215(f) is not a jurisdictional defect, but merely a voidable defect, which means that a defendant seeking to vacate the judgment must move within one year of service upon it of a copy of the judgment with notice of entry and make the dual showing of reasonable excuse for the default and a potentially meritorious defense.