United States District Court, D. Columbia.
For CATALINA SALMERON, JANINE COLEMAN, KATHRYN FLYTHE, KOSHI WADE, LADINE EVERETT, TAI COATES, TYKIA DICKERSON, ICIA LIRIANO, Plaintiffs: Douglas Tyrka, TYRKA & ASSOCIATES, LLC, McLean, VA.
REGGIE B. WALTON, United States District Judge.
The plaintiffs brought this suit against the government of the District of Columbia (the " District" ) to recover attorneys' fees and costs arising from administrative proceedings conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(the " IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2012). Amended Complaint for Attorneys' Fees and Costs (" Am. Compl." ). Currently before the Court is the Defendant's Motion to Set Aside the Clerk of Court's Entry of Default, Vacate Default Judgment, and Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (" Def.'s Mot." ) under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 55(c), 60(b), and 4(m). See Def.'s Mot. at 1; see also Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's Motion to Set Aside the Clerk of Court's Entry of Default, Vacate Default Judgment and Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (" Def.'s Mem." ) at 3. Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the defendant's motion must be granted in part and denied in part.
On December 23, 2013 the plaintiffs served their Amended Complaint on Alex Curtis, a former legal assistant in the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings who, according to the District, was not authorized to accept service on behalf of the District. Return of Service/Affidavit (" Aff." ), ECF Nos. 4, 6; see Def.'s Mot. at 8-9; see also Def.'s Mot., Exhibit (" Ex." ) 3 (Declaration of Kathy Haggerty (" Haggerty Decl." )) at 1-2. On February 18, 2014, after the District failed to respond to the Amended Complaint, the plaintiffs' counsel, Douglas Tyrka, sent an email to the lawyers in the Office of the Attorney General who had previously litigated the underlying IDEA cases to remind them that an answer had not been filed. Pl.'s Opp'n at 2; see also Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 3 (Feb. 18, 2014 Email from Douglas Tyrka (" Tyrka Email" )) at 1. The District responded by informing the plaintiffs' counsel that Ms. Curtis was not authorized to accept service on behalf of the District and thus " [t]he summons and complaint were not properly served on the District of Columbia." Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 6 (Feb. 18, 2014 Email from Darrell Chambers (" Chambers Email" )) at 1. This email also advised the plaintiffs' counsel that:
In order to properly serve the District you must serve the Mayor of the District of Columbia and/or the Attorney General for the District of Columbia . . . . The Mayor has authorized the Attorney General to accept service on his behalf. The Attorney General has, in turn, designated a number of individuals in the Civil Litigation Division to accept service on his behalf. These are the only individuals authorized to accept service on behalf of the District of Columbia (other than the Mayor himself or the Attorney General): George Valentine[,] Elizabeth Sara Gere[,] Darlene Fields[,] Tonia Robinson[,] Gail Rivers[,] Marjorie Thomas[,] Regina Brown[.] For ease of service, all of the above individuals are located at 441 4th Street, Suite 600 South.
Id. There is no indication that the plaintiffs properly effected service on the District after receiving this information. See generally Court Docket.
The Clerk of this Court entered a default against the District on March 5, 2014, after the District failed to answer the plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. Clerk's
Entry of Default, ECF No. 10. The plaintiffs then filed a motion for default judgment on April 10, 2014. Plaintiffs' Motion (" Pl.'s Mot." ) at 1. The Court issued an order on August 8, 2014, requiring the District to " show cause in writing on or before September 1, 2014, why the plaintiffs' motion for a default judgment should not be granted." Order, ECF No. 13 at 3. Upon the District's failure to respond to the Court's order to show cause, the Court entered a default judgment against the District on January 9, 2015. Order, ECF No. 14.
The District became aware of the default and the default judgment upon receiving a copy of the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Order granting the Motion for Default Judgment by mail on January 14, 2015. Def.'s Mem. at 6. Prior to receiving these documents from the Court, all filings made by the plaintiffs and orders issued by the Court were made electronically, and the plaintiffs did not serve any of their filings on the District. Id. at 5; see generally Court Docket. The only notice the District had regarding the suit prior to its receipt of the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Order was the courtesy email sent by plaintiffs' counsel on February 18, 2014. Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 3 (Tyrka Email) at 1.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Once a default has become a final judgment, the default judgment can be set aside only " under the stricter rule 60(b) standards for setting aside final, appealable orders." Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 835, 205 U.S. App.D.C. 84 (D.C. Cir. 1980); Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(c). Under this rule, the Court, in its discretion, may relieve a party from a final judgment, such as a default judgment, for one of six reasons set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b),
see Lepkowski v. Dep't of Treasury, 804 F.2d 1310, 1311-12, 256 U.S. App.D.C. 281 (D.C. Cir. 1986), one of those reasons being where the judgment is " void," Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(4). A judgment is void if the court that entered the judgment lacked personal or subject-matter jurisdiction over the case, acted in a manner inconsistent with due process, or acted beyond the powers granted to it by law. See Eberhardt v. Integrated Design & Constr., Inc., 167 F.3d 861, 871 (4th Cir. 1999). While the decision to vacate a judgment is typically at the discretion of the court, " there is no question of discretion on the part of the court when a motion is under Rule 60(b)(4); if the judgment is void, relief is mandatory." Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 734 F.3d 1175, 1179, 407 U.S. App.D.C. 133 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (quoting Combs v. Nick Garin Trucking, 825 F.2d 437, 441, 263 U.S. App.D.C. 300 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (footnote and quotation marks omitted)). Moreover, there are " strong policies favoring the resolution of genuine disputes on their merits."
Jackson, 636 F.2d at 835.
III. LEGAL ANALYSIS
A. The Plaintiffs' Service of Process on the District
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c) provides that " [t]he plaintiff is responsible for having the summons and complaint served within the time allowed by Rule 4(m) and must furnish the necessary copies to the person who makes service." " [F]ederal courts lack the power to assert personal jurisdiction over a defendant 'unless the procedural requirements of effective service of process are satisfied.'" Mann v. Castiel,681 F.3d 368, 372, 401 U.S. App.D.C. 37 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (citation ...