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Gage v. Somerset County

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 28, 2019

THOMAS I. GAGE, pro se, Plaintiff,
v.
SOMERSET COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Thomas I. Gage, who is proceeding pro se, has moved for default judgment against all the remaining Defendants, [1] whom he identifies as “City of Watchung (WPD), ” “Christopher S. Porrino (former NJDAG), ” “Michael C. Schutta (Det. of SCPO), ” “Geoffrey D. Soriano (former SCPO), ” “SOMERSET COUNTY (Law enforcement), ” and “SOMERSET COUNTY JAIL.” In the interest of judicial economy, the Court shall refer to the individuals by their last names or collectively as “State Officials, ” and to the entities as “Watchung, ” “Somerset County, ” and “Somerset County Jail, ” respectively.

         State Official Defendants have in turn moved to vacate the entry of default against them and to dismiss this case. The Court has also received and docketed letters expressing the views of Defendants Watchung, Somerset County, and Somerset County Jail.

         Upon consideration of the briefing, [2] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's [13] Motion for Default Judgment Against Defendants, GRANTS Defendants Porrino's, Schutta's, and Soriano's [18][18-1] Motion to Vacate Default, and GRANTS as to venue and DENIES WITHOUT PREJUDICE Defendants Porrino's, Schutta's, and Soriano's [18][18-1] Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint raising additional arguments pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

         In an exercise of its discretion, the Court shall vacate the entry of default as to Defendants Porrino, Schutta, Soriano, Watchung, Somerset County, and Somerset County Jail, and, rather than dismiss all claims against them, shall, in the interest of justice, transfer this case sua sponte to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey where venue is appropriate.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court shall recite only those few allegations in the [1] Complaint that are necessary to the resolution of this matter. In tandem, the Court shall summarize the relevant proceedings in this case.

         Plaintiff filed this suit on February 2, 2018, against a number of public entities and current or former officials in New Jersey, as well as a private attorney. Plaintiff's thirty-eight count Complaint pursues a variety of causes of action under federal and New Jersey law that allegedly “arose from an attempt of Plaintiff to expose fraudulent documents that have been used on August 8, 2011, to steal Plaintiff's private property at: 51 Hillcrest Blvd, Warren, NJ.” Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 3. The Complaint is not a model of clarity. As best the Court can discern, however, Plaintiff objects to an alleged series of actions purportedly stemming from his opposition to a real estate development called Sleepy Hollow in Warren, NJ. See Id. ¶¶ 4, 5, 31-56. Those actions appear to consist, in the main, of alleged false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. See, e.g., id. ¶ 31.

         On February 20, 2018, the one Defendant who is a private attorney, Jay B. Bohn, filed a motion to dismiss the claims against him. Although Defendant Bohn raised several grounds for dismissal, the Court determined that Rule 12(b)(3) was sufficient and granted his motion on August 21, 2018, due to improper venue. Mem. Op., Gage v. Somerset Cty., 322 F.Supp.3d 53 (D.D.C. 2018), ECF No. 17.

         None of the Defendants that are public entities and officials, on the other hand, initially appeared in this action. When Defendants did not answer or otherwise respond to Plaintiff's purported service of the Complaint, Plaintiff requested entry of default, which the Clerk entered on March 19, 2018. See Pl. Thomas I. Gage's Proof of Service of Summons and Compl. to Defs., ECF No. 8; Aff. in Supp. of Default, ECF No. 10; Default, ECF Nos. 10, 11. Even before the Clerk entered that default, Plaintiff had moved for entry of default judgment on March 14, 2018. Pl.'s Mot. Only upon entry of default did the Court begin to hear from the public entities and officials.

         On behalf of the apparently misidentified “City of Watchung, ” counsel to the Borough of Watchung, “a municipal corporation of the State of New Jersey, ” sent the Court a letter dated March 23, 2018, that objected to the entry of default and raised jurisdictional and other bars to this lawsuit. Watchung Opp'n at 1. The Court construed this letter-which indicates that a copy was sent to Plaintiff-as an opposition to a default involving defendant “Watchung” and placed it on the record. Id. at 1-2. The letter suggested, inter alia, that Plaintiff had not properly effected service on this Defendant. Id. Accordingly, the Court ordered Plaintiff to “1) show cause as to whether he has properly served Defendant Watchung, or 2) cause process to be properly served upon Defendant Watchung and proof of service to be filed with the Court, or establish good cause for the failure to do so.” 2d Min. Order of Aug. 21, 2018. The Court also instructed Plaintiff to show cause as to why his claims against this Defendant, as well as the other defaulting Defendants, should not be dismissed for improper venue as the Court had done for claims against Defendant Bohn. Id. The Court construed Plaintiff's subsequent briefing as an attempt to respond to both show-cause orders. See Pl.'s Resp. & Opp'n at i.

         On August 22, 2018, the State of New Jersey's Office of Attorney General filed a motion to vacate the entry of default against Defendants Porrino, Schutta, and Soriano, and to dismiss the claims against them. Mot. to Vacate Default and to Dismiss Pl.'s Compl. with Prejudice Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) on Behalf of Defs. Christopher S. Porrino, Geoffrey D. Soriano, and Det. Michael C. Schutta, ECF Nos. 18, 18-1. Upon receiving this motion, the Court instructed Plaintiff that in lieu of showing cause why venue should lie against these State Official Defendants-as the Court had the previous day ordered-Plaintiff should simply respond to their motion, which would give him an opportunity to address their improper venue arguments. Order, ECF No. 19. The Court has since received Plaintiff's opposition, as well as a reply from the State Official Defendants. Pl.'s Resp. & Opp'n; State Officials' Reply.

         As part of his response to the Court's show-cause order about improper venue, Plaintiff purported to address venue as to Defendants Somerset County and Somerset County Jail. See Pl.'s Resp. & Opp'n at i. The Court eventually received a letter, dated February 5, 2019, from counsel to the County of Somerset and the Somerset County Jail arguing that Plaintiff had not shown venue to be proper. Somerset Opp'n at 2. As it had with the Borough of Watchung, the Court interpreted this letter as an opposition to a default involving “Somerset County” and “Somerset County Jail” and allowed its filing on the docket. Id. at 1. Although this letter indicates that a copy was sent to Plaintiff, Plaintiff has not filed a response with the Court, nor does the Court see any need to prompt such a response.

         Briefing having concluded, the pending motions are ripe for resolution.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(c)

         “Default judgments are generally disfavored by courts, because entering and enforcing judgments as a penalty for delays in filing is often contrary to the fair administration of justice.” Int'l Painters & Allied Trades Union & Indus. Pension Fund v. H.W. Ellis Painting Co., Inc., 288 F.Supp.2d 22, 25 (D.D.C. 2003) (“Int'l Painters”) (citing Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 835 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). Consistent with this preference for deciding cases on the merits, even before reaching default judgment the court may vacate the entry of default based on the lower standard of simply “good cause.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(c); see also Jackson, 636 F.2d at 835. “Though the decision [to set aside an entry of default] 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 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) (citations omitted); see also Gilmore v. Palestinian Interim Self-Gov't Auth., 843 F.3d 958, 965-66 (D.C. Cir. 2016). “On a motion for relief from the entry of a default or a default judgment, all doubts are resolved in favor of the party seeking relief.” Jackson, 636 F.2d at 836.

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3)

         The federal statute governing venue provides that “[a] civil action may be brought in (1) a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located [or] (2) a judicial district in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred, or a substantial part of property that is the subject of the action is situated.” 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1), (2). Only “if there is no district in which an action may otherwise be brought as provided in” Section 1391 may the plaintiff pursue his claims ...


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