The phrase “excusable neglect” appears in a couple places in Missouri law, particularly where a party fails to meet a court deadline. This article will explore what constitutes excusable neglect.
Why does it matter?
Excusable appears throughout the Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure. Under rule 44.01(b), a court may permit certain late filings where the failure to meet a deadline was the result of excusable neglect. Similarly, rule 67.06 states in relevant part, “If the amended pleading is not filed within the time allowed, final judgment of dismissal with prejudice shall be entered on motion except in cases of excusable neglect.” (emphasis added) Finally, rule 74.06 allows for a final judgment to be set aside under certain circumstances, including situations involving excusable neglect.
Defining “Excusable Neglect”
In Cotleur v. Danziger, the Missouri Supreme Court addressed the meaning of excusable neglect where a client was abandoned by their attorney. The appellant’s attorney, having failed to appear at a hearing, filed a motion to set aside the court’s judgment alleging that he was out of town at the time, misunderstood the nature of the hearing, and had hired another attorney to appear on his behalf. The appellant motioned for the trial court’s judgment to be set aside, arguing that her counsel’s neglect should not be imputed to her because he abandoned the defense of the case without notice to her. The court held that the inexcusable neglect of appellant’s attorney was imputable to her, relying on the appellant’s failure to attempt to secure a new attorney following the alleged abandonment.
Jones v. Chrysler Corp. briefly discusses excusable neglect in the context of setting aside a default judgment. The default was the result of the failure of a secretary in Chrysler’s claims department to send a letter to their attorneys. In seeking to set aside a default, Chrysler had the burden of proving (1) it had good excuse for being in default, (2) it had a meritorious defense to the action, and (3) the opposing party would not be substantially harmed by the delay resulting from the default being set aside. The court held that forgetfulness or misrouting of papers within an organization does not constitute good cause for default nor does it show excusable neglect.
Perhaps the most complete definition can be found in Inman v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. There, the Inmans appealed the trial court’s denial of leave to file a late response to a motion for summary, arguing that their actions demonstrated excusable neglect. The court notes that several cases have relied heavily on the definitions from Black’s Law Dictionary, which defines excusable neglect as:
“A failure–which the law will excuse–to take some proper step at the proper time (esp. in neglecting to answer a lawsuit) not because of the party’s own carelessness, inattention, or willful disregard of the court’s process, but because of some unexpected or unavoidable hindrance or accident or because of reliance on the care and vigilance of the party’s counsel or on a promise made by the adverse party.”
As the court further states, “excusable neglect” is an action attributable to mishap and not the result of indifference or deliberate disregard. Unfortunately for the Inmans, the court held they failed to meet this standard, not because their conduct didn’t demonstrate excusable neglect, but because they never provided a reason for their failure to timely answer the plaintiff’s petition.