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Herbin v. Seau

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 11, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Jervon Herbin's motions for default judgment. Dkt. 15; Dkt. 18. Because Herbin has not met his burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction and has not made a prima facie showing of personal jurisdiction, the Court will DENY both motions for default judgment without prejudice. The Court will further require that Herbin file additional evidence regarding jurisdiction, liability, and damages.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from a putative business dispute between Plaintiff Jervon Herbin and Defendant Shawnita Wilkins Seau. During the relevant events, Herbin was incarcerated in Virginia, where he remains today. See Dkt. 1 at 1. According to Herbin, he developed an idea for “a dating/social networking website” that would “target[] [b]lack consumers.” Id. at 3-4 (Compl. ¶ 5). He decided to go into business with Seau, “a former college classmate, ” id. at 3-4 (Compl. ¶¶ 4-5), with whom Herbin had “reconnect[ed] after . . . a 17[-]year hiatus in their . . . friendship, ” id. at 7-8 (Compl. ¶ 12). They “entered into a [p]artnership agreement, ” and Herbin gave Seau a “copy of [his] business plan.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 5). Although the two friends worked well together at first, Herbin eventually grew dissatisfied with what he perceived to be Seau's lack of follow-through. Id. (Compl. ¶ 5). He alleges that she “failed to meet her partnership obligations [by] failing to execute the task[s] needed to bring the business to fruition.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 5). In particular, Herbin asserts, Seau did not register a domain name for the website, skipped a workshop at the D.C. “Bar Entrepreneurship Pro Bono Program, ” and failed to email potential investors. Id. (Compl. ¶ 5); see Id. at 5-6 (Compl. ¶¶ 8-11). Disillusioned, Herbin asked Seau “to return his business plan, ” warned her not to “steal” his idea, and “informed her . . . that the partnership was to be dissolved.” Id. at 3-4, 7-8 (Compl. ¶¶ 5, 12). Although Seau agreed to return the document and said she would not compete with him, she allegedly has not returned Herbin's business plan to him despite multiple requests. Id. at 7-8 (Compl. ¶ 12). Herbin alleges that, as a result, he has missed out on “professional assistance in launching the business, ” including “assistance from potential investors.” Id. at 3-4 (Compl. ¶ 5).

         Herbin, proceeding pro se, filed this diversity action against Seau. Dkt. 1. He asserts a variety of contract and tort claims based on her alleged “fail[ure] to honor the partnership agreement” as well as unspecified intellectual property claims stemming from her “refusal to return [his] business plan.” Id. at 9-10 (Compl. ¶¶ 14, 17). He seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $152 million as well as punitive damages. Id. at 11-12 (Compl. Prayer).

         Seau was served on July 24, 2017, Dkt. 11 at 3, and has failed to respond to the complaint. Herbin moved for a default judgment on December 4, 2017, before the Clerk of the Court had entered a default. Dkt. 15. Three days later, the Clerk entered the default. Dkt. 14. Herbin renewed his motion for default judgment on March 27, 2018. Dkt. 18.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55 governs the entry of a default judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 55. If a defendant “has failed to plead or otherwise defend” against the action, the plaintiff may “apply to the [C]ourt for a default judgment.” Id. Entry of a default judgment, however, “is not automatic.” Mwani v. bin Laden, 417 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir. 2005). In particular, “the procedural posture of a default does not relieve a federal court of its ‘affirmative obligation' to determine whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over the action.” Cohen v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 238 F.Supp.3d 71, 79 (D.D.C. 2017) (quoting James Madison Ltd. v. Ludwig, 82 F.3d 1085, 1092 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). In addition, the Court “should satisfy itself that it has personal jurisdiction before entering judgment against an absent defendant.” Mwani, 417 F.3d at 6. In the absence of an evidentiary hearing on personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff can satisfy his “burden of proving personal jurisdiction . . . with a prima facie showing” based on the “pleadings, bolstered by . . . affidavits and other written materials.” Id. at 7 (emphasis omitted) (citing Edmond v. U.S. Postal Serv. Gen. Counsel, 949 F.2d 415, 424 (D.C. Cir. 1991)). The plaintiff “has the burden of establishing both subject matter jurisdiction over the claim[] and personal jurisdiction over the defendant[].” Friends of Mayanot Inst., Inc. v. Islamic Republic of Iran, ___ F.Supp.3d ___, 2018 WL 2023498, at *3 (D.D.C. May 1, 2018) (quoting Thuneibat v. Syrian Arab Republic, 167 F.Supp.3d 22, 33 (D.D.C. 2016)).

         A complaint that is “filed pro se is ‘to be liberally construed, '” and, “however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). A pro se plaintiff, however, still “bears the burden of establishing that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction.” Bickford v. United States, 808 F.Supp.2d 175, 179 (D.D.C. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). To determine whether it has jurisdiction, the Court may “consider the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record.” Coal. for Underground Expansion v. Mineta, 333 F.3d 193, 198 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (quoting Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis., 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992)). If the complaint “fails facially to plead facts sufficient to establish” subject matter jurisdiction, the Court may dismiss the complaint. Achagzai v. Broad. Bd. of Governors, 170 F.Supp.3d 164, 173 (D.D.C. 2016).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Before reaching the merits of Herbin's motions for entry of a default judgment, the Court must satisfy itself that it has Article III jurisdiction. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94-95 (1998). Because Herbin has not established that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction, the Court will deny the motions without prejudice.

         Herbin has invoked the Court's diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. See Dkt. 1 at 1 (Compl.). “Federal diversity jurisdiction exists only in cases in which no plaintiff is a citizen of the same state as any defendant.” McKee v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 253 F.Supp.3d 78, 82 (D.D.C. 2017). For purposes of assessing diversity jurisdiction, an individual is a citizen of the state in which she is domiciled. See Prakash v. Am. Univ., 727 F.2d 1174, 1180 (D.C. Cir. 1984). Domicile requires “physical presence in a state” as well as the “intent to remain there for an unspecified or indefinite period of time.” Id. If there are “any litigants from the same state on opposing sides, ” then diversity jurisdiction is “lacking.” Saadeh v. Farouki, 107 F.3d 52, 55 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Although Herbin is incarcerated in Virginia, he asserts that he is “a citizen and resident of the District of Columbia.” Dkt. 1 at 1 (Compl.). The Court, accordingly, lacks jurisdiction if Seau resides in the District as well.

         On this score, the record is mixed. According to the complaint, Herbin “is not exactly sure of where” Seau “resides” because “there is some discrepancy as to her exact address.” Dkt. 1 at 3 (Compl. ¶ 4). She allegedly provided Herbin with “two different addresses” located in Stafford, Virginia, and “also occasionally resides at her brother's house in Alexandria, Virginia.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 4). Further confusing matters, Seau allegedly informed Herbin that she “use[s] . . . other relative[s'] address(es)” in the District of Columbia “as her place of residence.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 4). In subsequent filings, Herbin has continued to express uncertainty as to Seau's place of residence. See Dkt. 2 at 1 (‚ÄúThere is [a] discrepancy as to [Seau's] residential ...

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