What is a Bill of Review?
A bill of review is an equitable proceeding, seeking to set aside a prior judgment that is no longer subject to challenge by a motion for new trial or appeal. Although it is an equitable proceeding, the fact that an injustice has occurred is not sufficient to justify relief. While the typical scenario for a bill of review is a default judgment, a bill of review may actually be filed after any other type of judgment.
A bill of review, when properly brought, is a direct attack on a judgment. A direct attack is a proceeding brought for the purpose of changing a former judgment and securing the rendition of a correct judgment. When a bill of review fails as a direct attack, it may instead constitute a collateral attack.
What are the elements of a bill of review?
A bill of review plaintiff who does not dispute that he was properly served in the underlying action must plead and prove:
- a meritorious defense to the underlying cause of action,
- that the plaintiff was prevented from making by the fraud, accident or wrongful act of the opposing party or official mistake,
- unmixed with any fault or negligence on the plaintiff’s own part.
However, once a bill-of-review applicant proves the absence of service or lack of notice of the dispositive trial setting, the applicant is relieved of proving the traditional elements and the court may grant the applicant’s petition if it is timely.
Generally, a bill-of-review plaintiff must file his claim within four years of rendition of the judgment he attacks.
The Standard of Review for a Bill of Review
In reviewing the granting or denial of a bill of review, an appellate court draws every presumption in favor of the lower court’s ruling, which will not be disturbed unless it is affirmatively shown that there was an abuse of discretion. The trial court may be reversed for abusing its discretion if it has acted in an unreasonable or arbitrary manner or without reference to any guiding rules and principles.
The Meritorious Defense Requirement and Procedure
With regard to the meritorious defense requirement, the petition must allege, with particularity, sworn facts sufficient to constitute a meritorious defense and, as a pretrial matter, present prima facie proof to support the contention.
A prima facie meritorious defense is made out when it is determined that the complainant’s defense is not barred as a matter of law and that he will be entitled to judgment on retrial if no evidence to the contrary is offered. This determination is a question of law for the court.
Prima facie proof may be comprised of documents, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits on file along with such other evidence as the trial court may receive in its discretion. The bill of review defendant may respond with like proof showing that the defense is barred as a matter of law, but factual questions arising out of factual disputes are resolved in favor of the complainant for the purposes of this pretrial, legal determination.
If the court determines that a prima facie meritorious defense has not been made out, the proceeding terminates and the trial court must dismiss the case. If a prima facie meritorious defense is shown, the court will then conduct a trial on the bill of review petition where the other elements will be considered.