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Estate of Gaither v. District of Columbia

September 8, 2009

ESTATE OF MIKAL R. GAITHER, BY AND THROUGH PEARL GAITHER, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The above-captioned matter was filed by Plaintiff Pearl Gaither as mother and personal representative of the Estate of Mikal R. Gaither, who was fatally stabbed on December 14, 2002, while incarcerated at the District of Columbia Central Detention Facility ("CDF" or the "Jail"). Plaintiff named as Defendants in this civil matter the District of Columbia ("D.C." or the "District") as well as several individual District officials and Jail employees-including, as is relevant to the instant memorandum opinion, Marvin L. Brown, both individually and in his official capacity as Warden (now-retired) of the Jail.*fn1 Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Gaither's death resulted from the Defendants' negligence as well as their deliberate and reckless indifference to conditions at the Jail that they knew were unconstitutionally dangerous. Plaintiff asserts three causes of action against all Defendants, alleging a claim for violation of Mr. Gaither's constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as claims for negligence/survival action and wrongful death.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Brown's [160] Motion to Vacate Default and for the Court to Accept his Motion for Summary Judgment as his Response to Plaintiff's Complaint. After thoroughly reviewing the parties' submissions, including the attachments thereto, applicable case law, and the record of the case as a whole, the Court shall GRANT-IN-PART and DENY-IN-PART Defendant Brown's [160] Motion to Vacate Default and for the Court to Accept his Motion for Summary Judgment as His Response to Plaintiff's Complaint, for the reasons set forth below.

I. BACKGROUND

As explained above, Plaintiff brings this lawsuit as mother and personal representative of the Estate of Mikal R. Gaither, who was fatally stabbed by a fellow inmate on December 14, 2002, while incarcerated at the Jail. See Second Amended Complaint, Docket No. [34] (hereinafter, "Sec. Am. Compl.") ¶ 2. At the time of Mr. Gaither's death, Defendant Brown was the Warden for the Jail. See id. ¶ 12.

Plaintiff filed the original complaint in this matter on July 1, 2003. See Compl., Docket No. [1]. On October 6, 2003-before the Defendants' response to Plaintiff's complaint was due-the District moved, with Plaintiff's consent, for an order staying this civil case pending resolution of the criminal investigation into Mr. Gaither's death that was being conducted by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. See Consent Motion of Def. District of Columbia to Stay Pending Outcome of Criminal Case, Docket No. [7]. The Court granted the District's motion, and the case was stayed, effective October 8, 2003, pending further notice from the parties. See 10/8/03 Min. Order. The stay was subsequently lifted at the parties' joint request on January 4, 2007, see 1/4/07 Min. Order, and Plaintiff filed her Second Amended Complaint shortly thereafter on February 9, 2007, see Sec. Am. Compl., Docket No. [34].

Plaintiff, via a process server, served Defendant Brown with the Second Amended Complaint on March 31, 2007, by personally serving his wife, Mary Ann Brown, with a copy of the Second Amended Complaint and Summons. See Affidavit of Service, Docket No. [44]. Plaintiff alleged claims against Defendant Brown in both his official and individual capacity. See generally Sec. Am. Compl. Defendant Brown, however, failed to timely answer or otherwise respond to the Second Amended Complaint. Plaintiff's counsel raised Defendant Brown's failure to respond with then-counsel for Defendants, Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia, George Rickman, in early May of 2007. See Pl.'s Opp'n to Def. Brown's Mot. to Vacate Def., Docket No. [170], Att. 1 (Declaration of Richard L. Matheny, III) (hereinafter "Matheny Decl."), ¶ 2. Mr. Rickman responded that he "could not make any representation on behalf of Mr. Brown" at that time. See Ex. 2 to Matteny Decl. (5/1/07 E-mail from Matheny to Rickman). Based upon this representation and Defendant Brown's continuing failure to respond to the Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff filed a Request to Enter Default of Marvin L. Brown on May 22, 2007. See Docket No. [48]. The Clerk of the Court entered default against Defendant Brown the next day, May 23, 2007. See Docket No. [60].

Defendant Brown explains that he did not become aware of Plaintiff's lawsuit until he met with Assistant Attorney General Rickman in August of 2007 to discuss the related civil action, Beale v. D.C., Civil Act. No. 04-959, which was filed based upon the same pattern of events that occurred at the D.C. Jail in December of 2002. See Def.'s Reply in support of his Mot. to Vacate Def., Docket No. [174], Ex. 1 (Declaration of Marvin L. Brown) (hereinafter "Brown Decl."), ¶ 3.*fn2 Defendant Brown had also been named as a defendant in the Beale action and had submitted a request for representation to the D.C. Office of Attorney General ("OAG") in that case. Id. He was meeting with Assistant Attorney General Rickman in August of 2007 to prepare for depositions in the Beale matter. Id. According to Defendant Brown, he was informed for the first time at that meeting that he had been named as a defendant by Plaintiff in the instant lawsuit. Id. Defendant Brown avers that, at the time service of the Summons and Second Amended Complaint was made to his wife in March of 2007, he and his wife were separated, and he was never advised by his wife that he had been served with the complaint in this action. Id. ¶ 4. Upon being informed of the instant lawsuit by Assistant Attorney General Rickman and after discussing the matter with him, it was Defendant Brown's understanding that he would be represented in this action by the OAG. Id. ¶ 3.

The OAG, however, did not move to set aside the entry of default against Defendant Brown, despite its agreement in August of 2007 to represent him in this litigation. Indeed, neither party took further action with respect to the entry of default, and the Court notes that Plaintiff has not to-date moved for default judgment against Defendant Brown. Rather, as the filings on the public docket in this case reflect, both parties appear to have proceeded as if Defendant Brown remained an active defendant in this action, despite the entry of default. When, on November 21, 2007, Assistant Attorney General Rickman withdrew as counsel of record for Defendants, substitute counsel of record entered their appearances on behalf of all Defendants-including Defendant Brown. See Praecipe of Withdrawal and Entry of Appearance, Docket No. [73]. From that point on, most-if not all-substantive filings submitted by Defendants (both during discovery and continuing after discovery had closed) purported to be made on Defendant Brown's behalf as well as on behalf of the other remaining defendants in this action. See, e.g., Docket Nos. [89], [94], [98], [107], [117], [146], [157], [158]. No objection was ever raised by Plaintiff to these filings.

In fact, neither party raised this apparent inconsistency with the Court or otherwise addressed the entry of default against Defendant Brown until briefing on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment was well under way. At that time, in opposing Defendants' motion for summary judgment-in which Defendant Brown purported, once again, to join-Plaintiff referenced the entry of default in a footnote, arguing that "Defendant Marvin Brown is not entitled to summary judgment... for the additional reason that the clerk has already entered default against [him]." Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s MSJ, Docket No. [155] at 18, n. 8. Plaintiff further advised that it was her intention to "move for default judgment against Mr. Brown pursuant to Rule 55(b)(2) at or near trial against the remaining co-defendants." Id.

Shortly thereafter, prompted by Plaintiff's footnote highlighting the previous entry of default, Defendant Brown filed the instant motion to vacate the entry of default and accept the previously-filed motion for summary judgment as his response to the Second Amended Complaint. See Def.' Mot. to Vacate Def., Docket No. [160]. Plaintiff filed an opposition to Defendant Brown's motion, arguing that the default was willful and that Plaintiff would be prejudiced by a decision to set aside the entry of default. See generally Pl.'s Opp'n to Def. Brown's Mot. to Vacate Def., Docket No. [170]. Plaintiff also argues in the alternative that, in the event the Court grants Defendant Brown's motion, the Court should allow Plaintiff to depose Defendant Brown and should award her monetary sanctions as well. See id. Defendant Brown filed a timely Reply. See Def.'s Reply in support of his Mot. to Vacate Def., Docket No. [174]. Accordingly, the motion is fully briefed and now ripe for the Court's review.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 55(c), a court "may set aside an entry of default for good cause." "Though the decision lies within the discretion of the trial court, exercise of that discretion entails consideration of whether (1) the default was willful, (2) a set-aside would prejudice the plaintiff, and (3) the alleged defense was meritorious." Keegel v. Key West & Caribbean Trading Co., Inc., 627 F.2d 372, 373 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Although these are the same factors considered in determining whether to set aside a default judgment, the standard for setting aside an entry of default is a "lower standard" than is required when the court is asked to set aside a default judgment. Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Furthermore, the D.C. Circuit has made clear that "[d]efault judgments are not favored by modern courts," and that, "[g]iven the strong policies favoring the resolution of genuine disputes on their merits," a trial court's refusal to set aside an entry of default "'need not be glaring to justify reversal.'" Id. at 835 (quoting Keegel, 627 F.2d at 374); see also Int'l Painters and Allied Trades Union and Indus. Pension Fund v. H.W. Ellis Painting Co., Inc., 288 F. Supp. 2d 22, 25 (D.D.C. 2003) ("Default judgments are generally ...


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