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Dougherty v. Snyder

July 29, 2010

KEITH DOUGHERTY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS
v.
JONATHAN SNYDER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM

The pro se plaintiff, Keith Dougherty, has filed a motion for reconsideration of our order of June 30, 2010, denying his motions under Fed. R. Civ. P. 55(a) to enter default against certain defendants: North Hopewell Township, York County, Pennsylvania; members of the Township's board of supervisors, Dustin Grove, Robert Barclay and William Tollinger; the Township's building code official and zoning officer, Jonathan Snyder; and the Township's secretary treasurer, Kerrie Ebaugh.

Plaintiff has also filed a motion for a hearing on the default; a motion "to stay 'attorney' for the Township, et al. until a default judgment has been entered"; a petition for a writ of coram vobis or, in the alternative, allowance for an interlocutory appeal; and a second motion for allowance of an interlocutory appeal.*fn1

As we explained in our memorandum accompanying our order denying the motions for default, Dougherty v. Snyder, 2010 WL 2640182 (M.D. Pa. June 30, 2010), Plaintiff was not entitled to default because he had not properly served the defendants against whom he was seeking default. Plaintiff had attempted to make personal service himself (which a party cannot do) and had attempted to make service by certified mail.

In his motion for reconsideration, Plaintiff argues that service was proper for the following reasons. First, service was governed by Pa. R. App. P. 121(c), which governs the service of papers in a Pennsylvania appellate court, by virtue of Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(j)(2)(B). The latter federal rule grants the option of serving a federal complaint on a state or local governmental entity by using state service rules. Plaintiff believes Rule 121(c), which in part allows service by mail, applies because his federal suit is one under Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Services, 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2037, 56 L.Ed.2d 611, 638 (1978), seeking, as he puts it, direct review of the actions of a governmental entity, and we are therefore acting in an appellate capacity. Second, three other defendants have not challenged service and between them have filed two motions to dismiss and if service was defective, these defendants would have challenged it. Third, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ignores defects in service or in proof of service when a defendant has been given actual notice of the lawsuit, citing McCreesh v. City of Philadelphia, 585 Pa. 211, 888 A.2d 664 (2005), and Commonwealth ex rel. McKinney v. McKinney, 476 Pa. 1, 381 A.2d 453 (1977). Fourth, Plaintiff can also rely on a local rule of court for the York County Court of Common Pleas, YCCiv. 5200(b), which governs appeals to the common pleas court from determinations of certain government agencies. That local rule allows personal service of the appeal by the appellant or by certified or registered mail. Fifth, since this is a proceeding in which he invokes his First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances, Plaintiff has a constitutional right to make service personally and cannot be required to use another person to effect service.*fn2

Finally, in his second motion for allowance of an interlocutory appeal, Plaintiff argues he can rely on Pa. R. App. P. 1514(c), which permits service by personal service by the party or by certified mail of a petition for review against a government unit filed in a Pennsylvania appellate court.

In his motion "to stay attorney for the Township," Plaintiff asserts that the entry of a default under Rule 55 is a "purely 'ministerial function,'" (doc. 27, p. 10), one in which the Clerk of Court "must" enter the default upon the request of the plaintiff. In his motion (doc. 28) for a hearing on the default, Plaintiff argues that the next step in the procedure is for the plaintiff to file a motion for a default judgment. At that time, as the argument goes, the defaulting defendants can file a motion to set aside the default judgment, and any defect in service can be raised by them in that motion. Plaintiff concedes that at that point he has the burden of showing that service was valid, but complains that he was not given the benefit of this procedure. In his motion to add D'Andrea and Welsh as defendants, Plaintiff requests the following relief: (1) vacatur of the June 30, 2010, order denying default; and (2) entry of default as of June 24, 2010. In his motion "to stay attorney for the Township," he requests that the allegedly defaulting defendants be required to proceed as if the default had been entered on June 24. (Doc. 27, p. 10). In his motion for reconsideration, Plaintiff requests that we enter a declaratory judgment that the First Amendment requires that a plaintiff filing a complaint or appeal against the government be allowed to make service of process himself even if he is a party.

We begin with Plaintiff's position that when presented with a request for entry of default, the Clerk has no discretion to decide whether entry of default would be proper or not and simply must enter the default upon the request of the plaintiff, with any determination of the validity of the default coming only by way of a later motion by the defendant to vacate any default judgment that was entered in the wake of the default.

Rule 55(a) provides as follows:

(a) Entering a Default.

When a party against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead or otherwise defend, and that failure is shown by affidavit or otherwise, the clerk must enter the party's default.

This rule does say that the Clerk "must enter" the default, as Plaintiff points out, but it also requires that the party seeking default show "by affidavit or otherwise" that the defaulting party "failed to plead or to otherwise defend." A party who has not been properly served has no obligation to plead or otherwise defend, Dahl v. Kanawha Inv. Holding Co., 161 F.R.D. 673, 685 (N.D. Iowa 1995), and entry of default would be improper against such a party. Id. It follows that the Clerk is not obligated under the rule to simply enter default upon a plaintiff's request. It is also why courts in addition to Dahl, have said that a default cannot be entered if there has not been proper service. See Sandoval v. Bluegrass Reg'l Mental Health-Mental Retardation Bd., 2000 WL 1257040, at *5 (6th Cir. 2000) (unpublished disposition)*fn3; Taylor v. Woods, No. 05-501, 2006 WL 3627880, at *1 (D.R.I. Oct. 23, 2006); Maryland State Firemen's Assoc. v. Chaves, 166 F.R.D. 353, 354 (D. Md. 1996). This includes Thompson v. Mattleman, Greenberg, Shmerelson, Weinroth & Miller, 1995 WL 321898, at *4 (E.D. Pa.), the case we cited in our June 30, 2010, memorandum.

In contrast, Plaintiff has cited no cases that have held that a clerk has no choice but to enter a default when requested by a plaintiff, even when the clerk is aware of apparent defects in service. Plaintiff cites Quarles v. Lineberger, 2002 WL 461684 (E.D. Pa.). In that case, the clerk had entered a default which the court vacated for defective service after the defendant filed a motion to set aside the default. No doubt a clerk will incorrectly enter a default from time to time, which was cured in Quarles by granting the defendant's motion to set it aside, but the case does not support Plaintiff's position, and the court in Quarles did not say that the correct procedure is for the clerk to enter a default, with the defendant's remedy coming only by way of a later motion.

We turn now to Plaintiff's argument that service was proper in any event. As noted, Plaintiff argues that service was proper under either a local rule of the York County Court of Common Pleas, YCCiv 5200(b), Pa. R. App. P. 121(c), or Pa. R. App. P. 1514(c). In pertinent part, a plaintiff is permitted by Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e)(1) to serve an individual by "following state law for serving a summons in an action brought in courts of general jurisdiction in the state where the district court is located...." Under Rule 4(j)(2)(B), a plaintiff can serve a local government by ...


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