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Nuyen v. Luna

October 13, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-01-8500; 01-L&T-42054). (Hon. Zoe Bush, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burgess, Associate Judge

Argued June 9, 2005

Before SCHWELB and FARRELL, Associate Judges, and BURGESS, Associate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia.*fn1

David Nuyen ("Nuyen") appeals from an order denying his motion to vacate a default judgment. He also contends that the trial court erred in entering the judgment itself. We reject his attack on the judgment, but find merit in his contention that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion to vacate without stating its reasons. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

I. Procedural History

Proceeding pro se, Nuyen filed a complaint in the Landlord-Tenant Branch of the Civil Division alleging that his tenant, Raysa Luna ("Luna"), had failed to pay rent for three months. He sought possession and a money judgment for the unpaid rent. Luna filed a verified answer, counterclaim, and jury demand, alleging that Nuyen had breached the implied warranty of habitability by failing to correct housing code violations. She sought an abatement of rent, a set-off or reimbursement for repairs, an injunction requiring Nuyen to repair the alleged violations, and such "further relief as the court deems just and proper." The landlord-tenant action was thereafter certified to the Civil Actions Branch pursuant to Super. Ct. Landlord and Tenant Rule 6.

Luna also commenced a separate civil action in the Civil Actions Branch seeking recovery for personal injuries that she and her daughters allegedly had suffered due to a collapsed ceiling and other conditions in the apartment. She sought compensatory and punitive damages, and an injunction requiring Nuyen to repair the allegedly unsafe conditions. Nuyen filed an answer denying the allegations in the complaint.

The judge presiding over the civil action consolidated it with the landlord-tenant action. Attorneys entered their appearance for Nuyen in the civil action. The court entered a scheduling order on February 22, 2003, which set deadlines for discovery, informed the parties that alternative dispute resolution would occur between August 22, 2002 and September 22, 2002, and stated that a pretrial conference would occur approximately sixty days thereafter.

Some three weeks after entry of the scheduling order, Nuyen was sentenced to two years imprisonment upon his plea of guilty to federal charges relating to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's investigation into Nuyen's compliance with the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of l992, 42 U.S.C. § 4852d (2005).

When Nuyen failed to respond to Luna's interrogatories and requests for production, Luna filed a motion to compel. Nuyen's counsel responded in part that he had been unable to locate Nuyen's prison address in order to forward to him the discovery requests. The court granted the motion to compel and awarded attorney fees. Nuyen failed to provide discovery by the deadline set in the court's order, whereupon the court issued a second order on September 23, 2002, and warned Nuyen that it would impose sanctions if he did not respond.

Meanwhile, on September 12, 2002, the court issued notices scheduling the pretrial conference for November 13, 2002. It mailed the notices to Luna's lawyer, to Nuyen's lawyers in the civil action, and to Nuyen at his home address. It did not mail notice to Nuyen's prison address, as he had not notified the court of that address.

On November 10, 2002, Nuyen executed a settlement agreement, which was later signed by his counsel. Luna and her counsel executed the agreement on November 14. The terms of the agreement required Nuyen to pay Luna $l6,000 in return for her releasing Nuyen from all claims, demands, action or damages which arise out of, or in any way relate solely to, the alleged personal injury claims of [Luna] and/or her minor children, which resulted in the filing of a lawsuit by [Luna] identified as Luna v. Nuyen Civil Action No. 01CA008500.

The agreement expressly exempted from its scope the claims and defenses in the landlord-tenant action, and stated that that action would "continue unhindered, unimpeded, and without any limitation to the causes or defenses asserted therein, notwithstanding the execution of this agreement."

On November l3, three days after Nuyen executed the settlement agreement, Luna and her attorney appeared for the scheduled pretrial conference in the landlord-tenant case. Nuyen did not appear, and neither did his lawyers in the civil action. The court took no action at the pretrial conference but granted Luna leave to file a motion for default judgment.

On December 24, 2002, Luna filed a motion for default judgment on her counterclaim, on the ground that Nuyen had failed to attend the pretrial conference. She asked for a rent abatement in the amount of $4,000, punitive damages in the amount of $50,000, release of all monies in the registry of the court, and injunctive relief.

Nuyen's counsel in this appeal filed a praecipe on February 26, 2003, in which he entered his appearance "in order to respond to defendant's motion for default judgment [in] this remaining case." No response, however, was filed. On June 24, 2003, the trial court granted as unopposed the motion for default judgment, granting all of the relief Luna requested.

Acting pro se, Nuyen filed a motion to vacate the default judgment on July 14, 2003. He represented that he had not received notice of the pretrial conference, had been in prison since April 22, 2002, and had not been represented by counsel since the settlement of the civil action. He asserted that Luna's counterclaim had no merit, and attached to the motion a paper entitled "Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Default Judgment and Motion for Enlargement of Time." The attachment stated, among other things, that there were no housing code violations in Luna's apartment, and argued that Nuyen's criminal convictions in the cases relating to lead-paint violations were irrelevant to the claimed housing code violations. In his motion, Nuyen represented that he had mailed and served the attached response immediately after receiving the motion for default judgment on January 3, 2003. (Nuyen's certificate of service on the response, however, indicated service of the response on December 27, 2002.) Citing Super. Ct. Civ. R. 59, Nuyen asked the court to vacate the judgment.

On July 24, 2003, Luna filed an opposition to Nuyen's motion. The opposition noted counsel's praecipe stating an intent to file a response to the motion for default judgment, and pointed out that the promised response had never been filed. Luna's opposition argued that Nuyen provided no grounds for relief under Rule 59, or "any other civil rule." Luna argued that Nuyen had asserted no error of law, no intervening change in the law, no new, previously unavailable evidence, and no manifest injustice warranting relief.

The trial court granted Nuyen's counsel an extension of time to amend Nuyen's motion. On August 26, Nuyen's counsel filed a ...

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