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Moment v. Dist. of Columbia

March 20, 2007

MICHAEL MOMENT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Pro se plaintiff Michael Moment brought an action against defendants the District of Columbia ("the District"), then-Mayor Anthony Williams and the Attorney General for the District of Columbia,*fn1 alleging violations of his constitutional rights, among other things. The defendants have moved to vacate the entry of default against them and for judgment on the pleadings, or in the alternative, summary judgment. Because the defendants have shown good cause to vacate the entry of default and the doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, bars Moment's claims, defendants' motions to vacate and for judgment on the pleadings will be granted.

BACKGROUND

On March 15, 2005, Moment filed a complaint against the District, Mayor Williams and the Attorney General in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia ("Superior Court") alleging that the actions of the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") violated his constitutional rights and other local and federal statutes and rules. He claims that MPD officers and other District officials harassed him and accused him of engaging in threatening behavior against his mother-in-law. On January 12, 2006, the Superior Court dismissed Moment's claim with prejudice for failure to satisfy D.C. Code § 12-309*fn2 as to his non-constitutional claims and failure to sufficiently plead municipal liability as to his constitutional claims. (See Defs.' Mot. for J. on Pleadings, Ex. 2 at 1.)

On December 29, 2005, prior to the Superior Court's ruling, Moment filed the instant complaint against the same defendants*fn3 claiming essentially the same constitutional and statutory violations and averring the same facts that he had previously stated in his Superior Court complaint. However, in his more extensive federal court complaint, Moment provided new information about his attempts to appeal his conviction for attempted threats and his civil suit against his attorney. (See Compl. at 5-9.) Following Moment's successful request for an entry of default against the defendants, the defendants moved to vacate the entry of default claiming inadequate service of process and an inadvertent scheduling mistake. The defendants also filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) arguing that Moment's claims are barred by res judicata.

DISCUSSION

I. MOTION TO VACATE ENTRY OF DEFAULT

Default may be vacated "for good cause shown" under Fed. R. Civ. P. 55(c). Because "strong policies favor resolution of disputes on their merits[,] . . . on a motion for relief from the entry of default[,] . . . all doubts are resolved in favor of the party seeking relief." Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1980). A court should consider "whether (1) the default was willful, (2) a set-aside would prejudice plaintiff, and (3) the alleged defense was meritorious" in determining whether to set-aside an entry of default. Keegel v. Key West & Caribbean Trading Co., 627 F.2d 372, 373 (D.C. Cir. 1980).

First, it is not clear that the defendants willfully defaulted. Defendants' counsel claims that due to an inadvertent scheduling error, she failed to calendar the correct response date.*fn4 Moment retorts that the defendants were well aware of the complaint (Pl.'s Mot. to Deny Defs.' Mot. to Vacate Default and Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 3), but provides no evidence to support his claim. Because there is no evidence that the defendants "acted with wanton or willful disregard for [their] legal responsibilities[,]" Lawton v. Rep. of Iraq, Civ. Action No. 02-474, 2006 WL 3876287, at *3 (D.D.C. Dec. 6, 2006) (internal quotations omitted), defendants' default has not been shown to be willful.

Further, Moment does not allege or show that he was prejudiced by defendants' untimely filing. Although almost two months elapsed between when the defendants were required to respond and when they did respond, such a delay in resolving the case on its merits does not constitute prejudice. See Keegel, 627 F.2d at 374 ("That setting aside the default would delay satisfaction of plaintiffs' claims, should plaintiffs succeed at trial, is insufficient to require affirmance of the denial.") Finally, a defendant's allegations are meritorious if "they contain even a hint of a suggestion which, if proven at trial, would constitute a complete defense." Id. (internal quotations omitted). Defendants' argument that Moment's claim is barred by res judicata due to a prior adjudication on the merits is sufficiently meritorious as is explained below. Because default was not willful, Moment has not alleged or shown prejudice and defendants' assertion that Moment's lawsuit is precluded by res judicata is meritorious, the defendants' motion to vacate entry of default will be granted.

II. MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) should be analyzed in the same manner as is a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Dale v. Exec. Office of the President, 164 F. Supp. 2d 22, 24 (D.D.C. 2001) (quoting 2 Moore's Federal Practice 3d § 12.38, 12-101 ("In fact, any distinction between them is merely semantic because the same standard applies to motions made under either subsection.")). A Rule 12(c) motion "should not be granted unless plaintiffs can prove no set of facts in support of their claim which would entitle them to relief." Beverly Enters., Inc. v. Herman, 50 F. Supp. 2d 7, 11 (D.D.C. 1999) (internal citations omitted). As in the case of a motion to dismiss, the court should accept the non-movant's allegations as true and view the alleged facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.*fn5 Dale, 164 F. Supp. 2d at 24. However, a complaint may be dismissed when "it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations." Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984); Egilman v. Keller & Hechman, LLP, 401 F. Supp. 2d 105, 109 (D.D.C. 2005) ("Where the pleadings present disputed questions of material fact, the movant's motion for judgment on the pleadings must be denied.")

"Since claim preclusion is an affirmative defense, the burden is on the party asserting it to prove all of the elements necessary for its application." Evans v. Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corp., Civ. Action No. 04-2185, 2006 WL 785399, at * 3 (D.D.C. Mar. 27, 2006) (internal quotation omitted). Determining whether a claim should be precluded under the doctrine of res judicata requires considering whether the prior litigation (1) involves the same claims or cause of action, (2) was between the same parties or their privies, and (3) involved a final valid judgment on the merits by (4) a court of competent jurisdiction. Smalls v. United States, 471 F.3d 186, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citing Blonder-Tongue Labs., Inc. v. Univ. of Ill. Found., 402 U.S. 313, 323-24 (1971)). "Generally, the doctrine of claim preclusion prevents claims between the same parties or their privies from being relitigated after a final judgment has been rendered in a prior suit." Jane Does I through III v. Dist. of Columbia, 238 F. Supp. 2d 212, 217 (D.D.C. 2002) (citing Semtek Int'l Inc. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 531 U.S. 497, 502 (2001)). The issue of finality not only goes to matters that have been previously litigated but also "to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose." Nevada v. United States, 463 U.S. 110, 129 (1983) (internal citation omitted).

Here, it is clear that Moment's cause of action was previously litigated in a prior adjudication. Identical causes of action implicate the same nucleus of operative facts; "it is the facts surrounding the transaction or occurrence which operate to constitute the cause of action, not the legal theory upon which a litigant relies." Page v. United States, 729 F.2d 818, 820 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (internal citation omitted); see also Drake v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 291 F.3d 59, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2002). A determination about whether two causes of action involve the same operative facts is based upon "'whether the facts are related in time, space, origin, or motivation . . . .'" ...


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