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Castellon v. Rodriguez

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

June 5, 2018


          Pennell, J.

         Sergio Rodriguez appeals a superior court order denying his motion to (1) vacate a CR 56 judgment for money damages entered in favor of his former landlords, Luz and Juan Castellon, (2) quash a writ of garnishment, and (3) dismiss his landlords' unlawful detainer complaint. Because the judgment and writ were issued in the context of an unlawful detainer proceeding that had never been converted into a general civil action, we agree with Mr. Rodriguez that the trial court's actions are void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In addition, because Mr. Rodriguez was never served with the unlawful detainer summons and complaint, the trial court lacked personal jurisdiction over Mr. Rodriguez as an individual. However, given that service of process was completed as to Mr. Rodriguez's wife, the court properly held jurisdiction over the Rodriguez marital community.

         Because the CR 56 order and judgment, and writ of garnishment, are void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court should have granted Mr. Rodriguez's motion to vacate the judgment and quash the writ of garnishment. This matter is therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings.


         Sergio and Angela Rodriguez rented property on 8th Avenue in Walla Walla, Washington, from Luz and Juan Castellon pursuant to a verbal month-to-month agreement. For the bulk of the tenancy, Mr. Rodriguez lived at the property with Angela Rodriguez and the couple's children. Mr. Rodriguez paid Mr. Castellon rent at the beginning of each month.

         In April 2016, Sergio and Angela Rodriguez informally separated and Mr. Rodriguez moved out of the 8th Avenue property. Mr. Rodriguez claims he advised Mr. Castellon of this development and provided a new mailing address. After he moved out, Mr. Rodriguez continued to pay rent to Mr. Castellon as part of an informal separation agreement with Angela Rodriguez. However, Mr. Rodriguez claims he informed Mr. Castellon that after August he would no longer pay rent, and that Mr. Castellon and Angela Rodriguez would then need to work something out between themselves.

         On August 8, 2016, Mr. Castellon posted a 20-day notice to vacate, terminating the month-to-month tenancy as of August 31. This notice was served by affixing it to the front door of the rental property and mailing it to the property's address. Because Mr. Rodriguez was no longer living at the property, he claims he never received the notice. Ultimately, Angela Rodriguez did not timely vacate.

         On September 1, 2016, the Castellons filed a complaint for unlawful detainer against Sergio Rodriguez and Angela Rodriguez. A show cause hearing was scheduled for September 12.

         The Castellons' process server went to the 8th Avenue property on September 1 to attempt service. The Rodriguez's daughter answered the door and advised the process server that her mother was at a neighbor's house. The daughter took the process server to the neighbor's residence, a couple of doors down the street. While at the neighbor's house, the process server personally served Angela Rodriguez with the summons and complaint. When Angela Rodriguez advised the process server that she was married to Sergio Rodriguez, he indicated on the certificate of service that Mr. Rodriguez was served via substitute service on Angela Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez claims he never received a copy of the summons and complaint. Instead, he found out about the show cause hearing from Angela Rodriguez after she called and told him there was a court action against him that he should go to.

         Mr. Rodriguez was present for the September 12 show cause hearing. Although Mr. Rodriguez did not respond when the case was originally called, he stepped forward when the court commissioner specifically asked whether Mr. Rodriguez was present. The commissioner asked Mr. Rodriguez if he intended to file a response to the summons and complaint. Mr. Rodriguez instead asked for a Spanish-language interpreter and the case was set over for the following day.

         The following morning, a court-certified Spanish interpreter was present in the courtroom to assist Mr. Rodriguez. As the hearing began, the court commissioner had to call Mr. Rodriguez up again because he was unaware his case had been announced. Counsel for the Castellons acknowledged that Sergio Rodriguez and Angela Rodriguez were in the process of separating and divorcing and that Angela and their children had finally vacated the property before the weekend prior to the hearing. The commissioner asked if Mr. Rodriguez had moved out, and he responded that he moved out "like three months ago." Report of Proceedings (Sept. 13, 2016) at 5. Mr. Rodriguez went on to answer the commissioner's questions and stated he had cleaned up the outside of the 8th Avenue property as the owner requested, that he was working at the Taqueria Mi Pueblito, and provided the address for his workplace. The commissioner stated to counsel for the Castellons that the workplace address was Mr. Rodriguez's forwarding address and that since the family had moved out there was nothing to do, to which counsel for the Castellons agreed no writ of restitution was necessary.

         At some point after the September 13, 2016 hearing, the Castellons discovered damage to the 8th Avenue property. On October 31, the Castellons filed a CR 56 motion for entry of judgment against Sergio Rodriguez and Angela Rodriguez, a supporting declaration with documentation, a cost bill, and notice of hearing. In this motion, the Castellons specifically alleged that back rent was due and owing under the verbal lease agreement and that there was damage to the property. On October 31, Mr. Rodriguez was served with the motion and supporting documents, and notice of the hearing set for December 12.

         Neither of the Rodriguezes made an appearance at the December 12 hearing. Counsel for the Castellons indicated she had not received a response from either defendant and she did not know if they were present in the courtroom. No inquiry was made to determine whether Sergio Rodriguez or Angela Rodriquez were in the courtroom.[1] Instead, the trial court asked if counsel for the Castellons had an order prepared. The court then signed the order and judgment as presented. The judgment included $5, 335.04 in damages, $277.00 in costs, $800.00 in attorney fees, and $1, 000.00 in rent for an unspecified month.

         A writ of garnishment was obtained on December 21, 2016, for Mr. Rodriguez's earnings. After receiving the garnishment documents, Mr. Rodriguez secured counsel who filed a motion to vacate the judgment, quash the writ of garnishment, and dismiss the complaint for unlawful ...

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