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Wood v. Hackler

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

August 14, 2019

HOLLY LEIGH WOOD AND MATTHEW W. WOOD, CO-EXECUTORS OF THE SUCCESSION OF JERRY W. WOOD Plaintiffs-Appellees
v.
JOE M. HACKLER Defendant-Appellant

          Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Trial Court No. 599387 Honorable Ramon Lafitte, Judge

          OFFICES OF J. RANSDELL KEENE By: Joseph Ransdell Keene Counsel for Appellant

          MAYER, SMITH & ROBERTS, L.L.P. By: Deborah Shea Baukman Counsel for Third Party Appellees, John Lorick, Snyder Properties Louisiana, L.L.C. and Remax Real Estate Services

          THE PESNELL LAW FIRM, APLC By: Billy Ray Pesnell John Whitney Pesnell Counsel for Appellees, Holly Leigh Wood and Matthew W. Wood, Co- Executors of the Succession of Jerry W. Wood

          Before STONE, STEPHENS, and McCALLUM, JJ.

          McCALLUM, J.

         "For who has despised the day of small things?"[1] Undeniably, this litigation involves matters of great significance to all parties involved and a large monetary judgment has already been rendered. However, even cases of great consequence are composed of various, smaller, but critical constituent parts. Importance is not always directly proportional to magnitude. The matter before this Court hinges, in no small part, on the significance of the admissibility and weight accorded information gleaned from the Internet and the lack of information in the appearance clause of a contract. These and other such diminutive issues coalesce to assist our resolution of the larger issue before this Court: Whether long-arm service of process was perfected prior to entry of a preliminary default and its subsequent confirmation.

         Holly Leigh Wood and Matthew W. Wood, co-executors of the succession of Jerry W. Wood, allege that they sent, by certified mail, the citation and petition to Joe M. Hackler, the defendant, at his correct address. They argue that an "unclaimed" return is not sufficient to defeat proper service and that they complied with all statutory obligations.

         Joe M. Hackler argues that the returned certified mail, stamped "unclaimed," proves that he did not receive the citation and petition. He contends that the trial court erred in granting the default judgment and further asserts that the trial court subsequently erred by denying his motion to annul the default. For the following reasons, we reverse the trial court's judgment.

         FACTS

         On August 25, 2016, Joe M. Hackler (Mr. Hackler) entered into a buy/sell agreement for immovable property with the Succession of Jerry W. Wood, through its co-executors, Holly Leigh Wood and Matthew W. Wood (the Woods). Of particular note in the agreement, Mr. Hackler's address was not listed under the appearance section of the contract. Thereafter, on March 16, 2017, the Woods filed their petition, titled "Petition to Recover Damages for Breach of Contract of Sale," against Mr. Hackler, seeking $100, 000.00 plus interest and fees.

         Although the agreement in question did not provide Mr. Hackler's address, all parties agree that it was known that Mr. Hackler resided somewhere in the state of Texas. The Woods were unable to rely on any address contained within the contract, nor was there any language requiring Mr. Hackler to keep them so apprised.[2] In order to obtain an address to attempt long-arm service on Mr. Hackler, under Louisiana Revised Statute 13:3201, the Woods turned for assistance to the ubiquitous Internet and utilized a website with the following address: https://nuwber.com.[3] At this location, counsel found an ostensible address for Mr. Hackler: 1003 Gardenia Street, Longview, Texas 75601 ("the Gardenia address"). The attorneys for the Woods obtained a citation from the Caddo Clerk of Court and subsequently sent, by certified mail on March 20, 2017, the citation and petition to Mr. Hackler at the Gardenia address.

         The certified mail was returned, to counsel for the Woods, as unclaimed. The United States Postal Service ("USPS") stamped the front side "unclaimed" and included handwritten remarks of "3/28," "FWD," "4-5" and "4-14." On the back side of the returned mail, the USPS included two yellow stickers. The first sticker was dated "03/23/17" and states, "Notify Sender of New Address, Hackler, 4 Pegues PL, Longview, TX 75601-4661" ("the Pegues PL address"). The second sticker, dated "04/17/17," states, "Return to Sender, Unable to Forward, Unable to Forward, Return to Sender."[4]

         On April 24, 2017, by affidavits of proof of service, signed by Debra Ervin, J. Whitney Pesnell and Bill R. Pesnell, as employees or partners of the Pesnell Law Firm, the Woods submitted their alleged proof of long-arm service. Debra Ervin's affidavit attested that she sent, by certified mail, the citation and petition to Mr. Hackler at the Gardenia address. She subsequently received back the returned mailing, stamped "unclaimed," with a notification of the new Pegues PL address from the USPS. J. Whitney Pesnell's affidavit attested that he deposited the certified mail ...


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