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Carazani v. Zegarra

United States District Court, District Circuit

July 3, 2013

VIRGINIA CARAZANI, Plaintiff,
v.
EMMA ZEGARRA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR DEFAULT JUDGMENT Re Document No. 15.

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiff, Virginia Carazani, a citizen of Bolivia, entered into a contract with the defendant, Emma Zegarra, to work as a housekeeper in the United States. The plaintiff alleges that once she moved to the United States, the defendant reneged on the contract and instead had the defendant work in her home for almost three years without pay. She now seeks damages pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 ("TVPA"). 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2008); 18 U.S.C. § 1595(a) (2008).

Despite the defendant's initial cooperation in this case, she has ignored a court-ordered Motion to Compel, failed to attend a court-ordered status hearing, and has been unresponsive to discovery requests since the filing of the April 27, 2012 Status Report. In response, the plaintiff has moved for the Court to enter default judgment against the defendant under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See FED. R. CIV. P. 37.

Because the defendant has repeatedly failed to comply with court orders or cooperate in discovery, the Court grants Carazani's motion for sanctions, and enters default judgment against Zegarra. The Court awards damages accordingly.

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

For eight years prior to 2006, the plaintiff worked as the defendant's housekeeper in Bolivia. Am. Compl. ¶ 14. In 2006, when the defendant accepted a job at the World Bank in the United States, the plaintiff agreed to accompany her to work as her housekeeper in the United States. Am. Compl. ¶ 16. Before the parties moved, they signed an employment contract that stipulated to the following in English and Spanish: (1) the plaintiff would work forty hours, five days per week as a housekeeper from December 25, 2006 to December 25, 2008; (2) the defendant would pay the plaintiff either $7.08 per hour or the greater of the minimum wage and the applicable prevailing wage under U.S. Department of State ("DOS") guidelines; (3) the defendant would pay the plaintiff overtime as required by state law; (4) the plaintiff would receive four holidays, five paid sick days, fifteen paid vacation days; (5) the defendant would make the plaintiff's tax payments; and (6) the defendant would provide the plaintiff and her dependents with meals, lodging, and medical insurance. See generally Pl.'s Supp'l Mot., [Dckt. #17, Ex. A], ("Contract").

The plaintiff worked between sixty-six and seventy-five hours, seven days per week over the course of three years. Am. Compl. ¶ 41, [Dckt. #13]; Pl.'s Supp'l Wage Calculation, [Dckt. #18]. In exchange, the defendant paid her the $8.50 necessary to keep her bank account open, a requirement under World Bank rules. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 39, 41. The plaintiff received no time off during this period except for four days while she was in the hospital, the expenses for which she paid with money provided by her family. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26.

Once the parties arrived in the United States, the defendant took the plaintiff's passport and papers and her son's legal papers, claiming the confiscation was to keep the documents safe. Id. at ¶ 22. The defendant also informed the plaintiff that she would be paid half of the contractual salary in order to pay for housing, food, and medical insurance, Pl.'s Supp'l Mot., [Dckt. #17, Ex. A], ("Carazani Decl.") ¶ 43, each of which was guaranteed at no cost to the plaintiff in the Contract. Contract §§ 8, 9. For the first year, the plaintiff worked 75 hour weeks from 6:30 AM until 9:00 PM with two short breaks each day. See Carazani Decl. ¶ 39. The plaintiff and her son lived in the basement, and occasionally the laundry room, of the defendant's house. See Carazani Decl. ¶ 41. Initially, the defendant told the plaintiff she would receive her reduced salary in a savings account. Id. at ¶ 44. Several months after arriving in the United States, the defendant told the plaintiff that she did not have enough money to pay the salary. Id. at ¶ 45. Ultimately, the defendant only paid the plaintiff the $8.50 necessary to keep her bank account open. Am. Compl. ¶ 40-41.

During her time with the defendant, the plaintiff incurred $35, 849.33 in medical expenses under the belief that they would paid for by the medical insurance stipulated to in the contract. See Pl.'s Supp'l Mot., [Dckt. #17, Ex. F], ("Medical Expenses"); Am. Compl. ¶ 26; Contract § 9. Among the larger expenses was a hospital visit by the plaintiff's son on April 24, 2007, the plaintiff's hospitalization for abdominal pain on February 25, 2008, and a second hospitalization of the plaintiff for an anxiety attack on October 22, 2008. See Carazani Decl. ¶¶ 50, 67, 75; Medical Expenses.

While the plaintiff, who only spoke Spanish, stayed with the defendant, the defendant forbade her to speak to anyone outside of the house. Id. at ¶ 27. The defendant emphasized that the plaintiff could not tell anyone that she was not being paid. Carazani Decl. ¶ 46. The defendant also told the plaintiff that the she could listen to the plaintiff's phone conversations by using a surveillance device from work. Am. Compl. at ¶ 29.

In 2008, the defendant failed to renew the plaintiff's visa, having not paid the plaintiff's employment taxes. Id. at ¶ 44. This forced the plaintiff to become an undocumented immigrant, which she claims increased her dependence on the defendant. Id. Alongside threats of deportation by the defendant and her daughter, the plaintiff believed that she would be deported if she did not continue to work for the defendant. Id. at ¶ 30. The plaintiff was ultimately able to escape from the defendant's home in 2009 with the assistance of a Good Samaritan and a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent. Id. at ¶ 5. On January 23, 2012, she filed this action against the defendant under the FLSA and TVPA. Id. at ¶ 6, 8.

After the plaintiff agreed to a time extension, the defendant filed an Answer on February 28, 2012. Answer, [Dckt. #6]. On March 28, 2012, the parties participated in an Initial Scheduling Conference, during which this Court ordered the parties to exchange Initial Disclosures by April 20, 2012 and file a Status Report by April 27, 2012. Scheduling and Procedures Order, [Dckt. #9]. Under the Status Report, the defendant agreed to amend pleadings or join additional parties by May 31, 2012, "exchange initial document requests and interrogatories" by June 29, 2012, respond to these initial requests by July 26, 2012, exchange requests for admission by August 20, 2012, exchange disclosures under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2)(B) and (C) by September 6, 2012, respond to requests for admission by September 20, 2012, complete all depositions and supplements to expert reports by September 20, 2012, and complete all discovery by September 28, 2012. Status Report, [Dckt. #12]; FED. R. CIV. P. 26(a)(2)(B), (C). The plaintiff served the defendant with the first set of document requests and interrogatories on June 29, 2012 through U.S. mail and email. Pl.'s Mot. to Compel, [Dckt. #14, Ex. D], ("Apfel Decl.") ¶ 6.

After failing to receive the defendant's Initial Disclosure or response to discovery requests by their respective deadlines, the plaintiff's counsel sent two emails to the defendant inquiring about the status of her Initial Disclosure on May 7, 2012 and May 15, 2012 and two emails about the status of the discovery requests on August 3, 2012 and August 7, 2012. See Pl.'s Mot. to Compel, [Exs. B, E]. On August 9, 2012, the plaintiff's counsel called the defendant's work number. Apfel Decl. ¶ 8. The individual who answered the phone told the counsel that the defendant "no longer worked at the World Bank" and "was currently out of the country." Id. The plaintiff's counsel then called one of the defendant's friends at the World Bank, who told her that the defendant "had left the country and had no intention of returning." Id. at ¶ 9. The World Bank Human Resources Department told the plaintiff's counsel that the defendant "used to work there." Id. at ¶ 10. Finally, the plaintiff's counsel called the defendant's home number on the same day and "received a recording that said that the number was no longer in service." Id. at ¶ 11.

On August 21, 2012, the plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel and for an Immediate Status Conference. Pl.'s Mot. to Compel. On August 27, 2012, the Court granted the plaintiff's Motion in part and ordered a status conference to be held on September 14, 2012. The defendant ignored the Order by failing to appear at the September 14, 2012 status conference. The Court then granted the Motion in its entirety on September 14, 2012 and ordered the defendant to produce Initial Disclosures and Responses to Discovery Requests within one week of the Order. Pl's Mot. to Compel. The defendant disregarded this Order by failing to produce either Initial Disclosures or Responses to Discovery Requests within one week. On November 26, 2012, the Court ordered the parties to submit a Joint Status Report by December 14, 2012. The defendant disregarded this order by failing to file a Status Report. Instead, on December 12, 2012 the plaintiff alone filed a Status Report, indicating her belief that the defendant had fled to Bolivia. Pl.'s Status Report, [Dckt. #16].

III. ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard for Default Judgment

Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure declares that the Rules "should be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding." FED. R. CIV. P. 1 (emphasis added). In keeping with this admonishment, default judgment serves as a tool "to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases." Shepherd v. Am. Broad. Cos., 62 F.3d 1469, 1475 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (quoting Link v. Wabash R.R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 630-31 (1962)). Though there is a "strong presumption in favor of adjudications on the merits, " courts may enter default judgment when the defendant is an "essentially unresponsive party" whose default is "plainly willful, reflected by its failure to respond to the summons and complaint, the entry of default, or the motion for default judgment." Id.; see also Chafin v. Chafin, 133 S.Ct. 1017, 1025 (2013); H.F. Livermore Corp. v. Aktiengesellschaft Gebruder Loepfe, 432 F.2d 689, 691 (D.C. Cir. 1970); Hanley-Wood LLC v. Hanley Wood LLC, 783 F.Supp.2d 147, 150 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). Just as a district court has the authority to dismiss a case in order to protect its docket against a plaintiff's "dilatory tactics, " so does it have the authority to enter default judgment against a defendant who similarly errs. See Keegel v. Key West & Caribbean Trading Co., 627 F.2d 372, 375 n.5 (D.C. Cir. 1980); see also Int'l Painters and Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund v. R.W. Amrine Drywall Co., 239 F.Supp.2d 26, 30 (D.D.C. 2002).

Under Rule 37, obtaining default judgment is a two-step process. First, the court must determine whether sanctions are appropriate at all, based on whether a party failed to obey an order to provide or permit discovery under Rule 26(f), 35, or 37(a), whether a party failed to provide information or identify a witness under Rule 26(a) or (e), or whether a party failed to attend its own deposition, serve answers to interrogatories, or respond to a request for inspection. See FED. R. CIV. P. 37(b)(2)(A); FED. R. CIV. P. 37(c)(1); FED. R. CIV. P. 37(d)(1)(A)(i), (ii); see also Perez v. Berhanu, 583 F.Supp.2d 87, 90 (D.D.C. 2008). Second, the court must determine which type of sanction is appropriate. See FED. R. CIV. P. 37(b)(2)(A)(i)-(vii); FED. R. CIV. P. 37(c)(1)(C); FED. R. CIV. P. 37(d)(1)(3); see also Perez, 583 F.Supp.2d at 90. Among the sanctions available under Rule 37, default judgment is the "sanction of last resort, ' to be used only when less onerous methods (for example, adverse evidentiary determinations or other issue-related sanctions') will be ineffective or obviously futile." Webb v. District of Columbia, 146 F.3d 964, 971 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (quoting Shea v. Donohoe Construction Co., 795 F.2d 1071, 1075 (D.C. Cir. 1986)). Nevertheless, a court need not exhaust other sanctions, and may enter default judgment after establishing on the record that "the gravity of an inherent power sanction corresponds to the misconduct." Shepherd, 62 F.3d at 1479.

Three basic justifications support the use of default judgment among the Rule 37 sanctions. Webb, 146 F.3d at 971 (D.C. Cir. 1998); Shea, 795 F.2d at 1074-77 (D.C. Cir. 1986). First, default judgment is justified where the errant party's behavior "has severely hampered the other party's ability to present his case." Webb, 146 F.3d at 971 (citing Shea, 795 F.2d at 1074 (D.C. Cir. 1986)). Second, it is justified where the errant party's behavior places "an intolerable burden on a district court by requiring the court to modify its own docket and operations in order to accommodate the delay" Id. (quoting Shea, 795 F.2d at 1075 (D.C. Cir. 1986)). Third, it is justifiable where the errant party's behavior is "disrespectful to the court" and presents the need "to deter similar misconduct in the future." Id. (quoting Shea, 795 F.2d at 1077 (D.C. Cir. 1986)).

Although default judgment establishes the defaulting party's liability for every well-pleaded allegation in the complaint, it does not automatically establish liability in the amount claimed by the plaintiff. Shepherd v. Am. Broad. Cos., 862 F.Supp. 486, 491 (D.D.C. 1994), vacated on other grounds, 62 F.3d 1469 (D.C. Cir. 1995); PT (Persero) Merpati Nusantara Airlines v. Thirdstone Aircraft Leasing Grp., Inc., 246 F.R.D. 17, 18 (D.D.C. 2007). Rather, "unless the amount of damages is certain, the court makes an independent determination as to the sum to be awarded." Adkins v. Teseo, 180 F.Supp.2d 15, 17 (D.D.C. 2001); see also Transatlantic Marine Claims Agency, Inc. v. Ace Shipping Corp., 109 F.3d 105, 111 (2d Cir. 1997). A court can make this determination through a hearing but need not "if it ensures that there is a basis for the damages specified in the default judgment." Embassy of the Fed. Republic of Nigeria v. Ugwuonye, No. 10-cv-1929 (BJR), 2013 WL 2247465, at *3 (D.D.C. May 22, 2013) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 55(b), (2)); see also Transatlantic Marine Claims Agency, Inc., 109 F.3d at 111. One such basis is detailed affidavits or documentary evidence. Flynn v. Mastro Masonry Contractors, 237 F.Supp.2d 66, 69 (D.D.C. 2002); Transatlantic Marine Claims Agency, Inc., 109 F.3d at 111; United Artists Corp. v. Freeman, 605 F.2d 854, 857 (5th Cir. 1979). If there is no hearing, courts can only award damages if the amount claimed is "a liquidated sum or one capable of mathematical calculation." United Artists Corp., 605 F.2d at 857; see also Jackson, 636 F.2d at 835; Int'l Painters and Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund, 531 F.Supp.2d at 57.

1. The Court Will Grant the Plaintiff's Motion to Enter Default Judgment Against the Defendant.

The plaintiff argues that the defendant's "pattern of non-compliance" with the Court's discovery orders merits sanctions under Rule 37(b)(2). Pl.'s Mot. for Default Judgment at 4, [Dckt. #15], (citing Webb, 146 F.3d at 971). The plaintiff analogizes the defendant's failure to comply with the Court's March 28, 2012 Order to Produce, failure to attend the court-ordered September 14, 2012 status conference, and failure to comply with the Court's August 21, 2012 Order to Compel to cases where courts have entered default judgment against defendants who disregard similar orders and discovery requests. Id. (citing Klayman v. Judicial Watch, Inc., 802 F.Supp.2d 137, 152 (D.D.C. 2011); Bristol Petrol. Corp. v. Harris, 901 F.2d 165, 165 (D.C. Cir. 1990); Flynn v. Thibodeaux Masonry, Inc., 311 F.Supp.2d 30, 37 (D.D.C. 2004); Secs. & Exch. Comm'n v. Hollywood Trenz, Inc., 202 F.R.D. 3, 7 (D.D.C. 2001); Walls v. Paulson, No. 03 Civ. 0186 (RMU), 2008 WL 2520813, at *1 (D.D.C. June 23, 2008); Tucker v. Dist. of Columbia, 115 F.R.D. 493, 496-97 (D.D.C. 1987). The defendant has not responded to the plaintiff's Motion for Default Judgment.

In order to obtain default judgment under Rule 37, courts must first determine whether sanctions are warranted. See FED. R. CIV. P. 37(b)(2)(A), (c)(1), (d)(1)(A); see also Webb, 146 F.3d at 971. Under Rule 37(b)(2)(A), a court may issue sanctions if a party "fails to obey an order to provide or permit discovery, including an order under Rule 26(f), 35, or 37(a)." FED. R. CIV. P. (b)(2)(A); see also Azamar v. Stern, 269 F.R.D. 53, 54-55 (D.D.C. 2010) (finding sanctions appropriate under Rule 37(b)(2)(A) because the defendant "has repeatedly failed to respond to plaintiff's written discovery requests" and "has not attempted to defend his failure in any manner, despite repeated opportunities to do so"), vacated in part, 275 F.R.D. 1 (D.D.C. 2011) (vacating previous judgment after the defendant ultimately responded to discovery requests).

In this case, the defendant has repeatedly failed to obey court orders to provide or permit discovery, including the March 28, 2012 Scheduling and Procedures Order, the August 27, 2012 Order for Hearing, the September 14, 2012 Order to Compel, and the November 26, 2012 Order for a Joint Status Report. Accordingly, the Court finds that sanctions are appropriate under Rule 37(b)(2)(A) because the defendant has failed to obey several orders to provide or permit discovery.

The plaintiff then argues that among the sanctions available to the Court under Rule 37(b)(2)(A), the Court should enter default judgment against the defendant. Pl.'s Mot. for Default Judgment at 5. The plaintiff argues that default judgment is justified because the defendant's inaction has severely prejudiced the plaintiff's attempt to seek relief, has unreasonably delayed resolution of the case, and has demonstrated disrespect for the Court. Id. at 4 (citing Webb, 146 F.3d at 971). The defendant has not responded to the plaintiff's Motion for Default Judgment.

Though default judgment is a "sanction of last resort, " district courts "need not exhaust other options before... imposing a default judgment" Shea, 795 F.2d at 1075; Shepherd, 62 F.3d at 1479. In Webb, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit set out three justifications that support the use of default judgment as a sanction for misconduct under Rule 37(b)(2): (1) if the errant party's behavior "has severely hampered the other party's ability to present his case;" (2) if the party's misconduct has placed "an intolerable burden on a district court by requiring the court to modify its own docket and operations in order to accommodate the delay;" and (3) if there is a need "to sanction conduct that is disrespectful to the court and to deter similar misconduct in the future." Webb, 146 F.3d at 971 (citing Shea, 795 F.2d at 1074-77); see also Perez, 583 F.Supp.2d at 91 (finding default judgment appropriate under the first and third justifications where the defendants failed to respond to the plaintiff's written discovery requests and failed to ...


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