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Harris v. Houston

United States District Court, District of South Dakota, Western Division

March 23, 2015

SEAN EDWARD HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
SARGEANT HOUSTON, Sargeant at Pennington County Jail, and C/O MOORE, Correction Officer at Pennington County Jail, Defendants.

ORDER

JEFFREY L. VIKEN CHIEF JUDGE

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Sean Harris, a prisoner at the Pennington County Jail, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the defendants on March 3, 2014. (Docket 1). The summons was served on defendant Moore on April 22, 2014, and on defendant Houston on April 25, 2014. (Dockets 18, 19, 20 & 21). On May 22, 2014, plaintiff filed a motion for default judgment against both defendants.[1] (Docket 24). On July 10, 2014, the Clerk of Court filed an entry of default in favor of plaintiff and against the defendants pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 55. (Docket 25). Copies of the entry of default were mailed to the defendants the same day.

On July 14, 2014, defendants filed a motion to set aside the Clerk’s entry of default and a motion for leave to file an answer to the complaint. (Dockets 27 & 29). Defendants’ motion to set aside default is made “because the Defendants’ conduct was not culpable, Defendants have meritorious defenses to the allegations in the Complaint, and setting aside the entry of default would not prejudice Mr. Harris.” (Docket 36 at p. 1). For the reasons stated below, defendants’ motions to set aside default and to file an answer out of time are granted.

DISCUSSION

“When a party ‘has failed to plead or otherwise defend’ against a pleading listed in Rule 7(a) [a complaint], entry of default under Rule 55(a) must precede grant of a default judgment under Rule 55(b).” Johnson v. Dayton Electric Manufacturing Company, 140 F.3d 781, 783 (8th Cir. 1998). In the event a defendant fails to timely file an answer or other responsive pleading, “the clerk must enter the party’s default.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a). “The court may set aside an entry of default for good cause, and it may set aside a default judgment under Rule 60(b).” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(c). Rule 60 allows the court to set aside a “final judgment, order, or proceeding” for a limited number of reasons. Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Those reasons, relevant to this particular case, are:

(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; [and]
(6) any other reason that justifies relief.

Id.

“Rule 55(c) provides that the district court may set aside an entry of default ‘[f]or good cause shown, ’ and may set aside a default judgment ‘in accordance with Rule 60(b).’ Although the same factors are typically relevant in deciding whether to set aside entries of default and default judgments, ‘[m]ost decisions . . . hold that relief from a default judgment requires a stronger showing of excuse than relief from a mere default order.’ ” Johnson, 140 F.3d at 783 (citing Connecticut National Mortgage Co. v. Brandstatter, 897 F.2d 883, 885 (7th Cir. 1990)). “This is a sound distinction. There is a ‘judicial preference for adjudication on the merits, ’ and it is likely that a party who promptly attacks an entry of default, rather than waiting for grant of a default judgment, was guilty of an oversight and wishes to defend the case on the merits.” Id. (citing Oberstar v. F.D.I.C., 987 F.2d 494, 504 (8th Cir. 1993)).

“When examining whether good cause exists, the district court should weigh ‘whether the conduct of the defaulting party was blameworthy or culpable, whether the defaulting party has a meritorious defense, and whether the other party would be prejudiced if the default were excused.’ ” Stephenson v. El-Batrawi, 524 F.3d 907, 912 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing Johnson, 140 F.3d at 784). The court will examine these three factors separately.

CONDUCT OF THE DEFENDANTS

“In deciding whether to set aside a default judgment for ‘excusable neglect, ’ a district court ought not to focus narrowly on the negligent act that caused the default and ask whether the act was itself in some sense excusable. Instead, the court should take account of ‘all relevant circumstances surrounding the party’s omission . . . .’ ” Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Progress Rail Services Corporation, 256 F.3d 781, 782 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing Pioneer Investment Services Co. v. Brunswick Associates Limited Partnership, 507 U.S. 380, 395 (1993)). “The inquiry is essentially an equitable one, and the district court is required to engage in a careful balancing of multiple considerations, including ‘the danger of prejudice to the [non-moving party], the length of the delay and its potential impact on judicial proceedings, the reason for the delay, including whether it was within the reasonable control of the movant, and whether the movant acted in good faith . . . .’ ” Id. (citing Pioneer Investment Services Co., 507 U.S. at 395). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit “[has] consistently sought to distinguish between contumacious or intentional delay or disregard for deadlines and procedural rules, and a ‘marginal failure’ to meet pleading or other deadlines. We have rarely, if ever, excused the former.” Johnson, 140 F.3d at 784. “But . . . have often granted Rule 55(c) and Rule 60(b) relief for marginal failures when there were meritorious defenses and an absence of prejudice.” Id.

In support of the motion to set aside default, defendants filed an affidavit of Brian Mueller, Chief Deputy in the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. (Docket 30). Chief Deputy Mueller testified that when he received the Clerk’s entry of default he “immediately began to investigate why an answer had ...


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