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Josephine Swartz v. Teachers Insurance and Annuity

January 25, 2012

JOSEPHINE SWARTZ, PLAINTIFF
v.
TEACHERS INSURANCE AND ANNUITY ASSOCIATION-COLLEGE RETIREMENT EQUITIES FUND, DOING BUSINESS AS TIAA-CREF, DEFENDANT JOSEPHINE A. SWARTZ, PLAINTIFF
v.
LEHIGH UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT



OPINION

This matter is before the court on the Notice of Motion to Vacate Default and Permit Defendant to Answer Amended Complaint, which notice of motion was filed September 12, 2011 by defendant Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund, doing business as TIAA-CREF ("Motion to Vacate Default").*fn1 On September 26, 2011, plaintiff filed an Answer to Defendant Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association Fund, d/b/a TIAA-CREF's Motion to Vacate Default.*fn2 Defendant TIAA-CREF filed its Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion to Vacate on September 27, 2011 ("Defendant's Reply Brief"). For the reasons articulated below, I grant defendant TIAA-CREF's motion to vacate default.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 55(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides: "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." In addition, Rule 55(b) sets forth the requirements of when the clerk (Rule 55(b)(1)) or the court (Rule 55(b)(2)) may enter judgment.

However, Rule 55(c) provides that the court may set aside an entry of default for good cause. District courts are to consider four factors when determining whether a default should be stricken or set aside: "(1) whether lifting the default will prejudice the plaintiff; (2) whether the defendant has a prima facie meritorious defense; (3) whether the defaulting defendant's conduct is excusable or culpable; and (4) the effectiveness of alternative sanctions." Allstate Insurance Co. v. Hopfer, Civ.A.No. 08-4549, 2009 WL 1362612, at *2 (E.D.Pa. May 14, 2009) (Stengel, J.) (quoting EMCASCO Insurance Company v. Sambrick, 834 F.2d 71, 74 (3d Cir. 1987)).

Culpable conduct for this purpose is dilatory behavior that is willful or in bad faith. Dizzley v. Friends Rehabilitation Program, Inc., 202 F.R.D. 146, 148 (E.D.Pa. 2001) (Kelly, J.). To establish culpable conduct, "[m]ore than mere negligence must be shown." Jackson v. Delaware County, 211 F.R.D. 282, 284 (E.D.Pa. 2002) (Baylson, J.) (quoting Hritz v. Woma Corporation, 732 F.2d 1178, 1183 (3d Cir.1984)).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that the meritorious-defense factor is the threshold issue in opening a default. "To assess this factor, the court may examine the defendant's answer, or if none was filed, the allegations in its motion to...set aside entry of default." Scully v. Onebeacon Insurance Company, 2004 WL 414041, at *2 (E.D.Pa. March 3, 2004) (Padova, J.)(citing Kauffman v. Cal Spas, 37 F.Supp.2d 402, 405 n.1 (E.D.Pa. 1999)).

To satisfy this factor, the defaulting party must allege facts, which, if established, would enable it to prevail in the action. Scully, supra. Thus, demonstrating the existence of a meritorious defense requires a defendant to set forth with some specificity the grounds for its defense.

However, the legal issue should not be decided at this early stage of review. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company v. Starlight Ballroom Dance Club, Inc., 175 Fed.Appx. 519, 522 (3d Cir. 2006). A defaulting party is not required "to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that [it] will win at trial, but merely to show that [it has] a defense to the action which at least has merit on its face." Jackson, 211 F.R.D. at 284 (quoting EMCASCO, 834 F.2d at 74).

Finally, the Third Circuit has a long-standing preference that cases be disposed of on the merits whenever practicable. Miles v. Aramark Correctional Service, Inc., 321 Fed.Appx. 188, 191 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Hritz, 732 F.2d at 1180-81). All doubts regarding default are resolved in favor of the defaulting party. Dizzley, 202 F.R.D. at 147.

DISCUSSION

The Amended Complaint against TIAA-CREF contains a single count (Count I) alleging that:

60. TIAA-CREF has improperly denied Plaintiff the benefits of the TIAA-CREF plan by engaging in improper conduct that enabled and facilitated Lehigh University to arbitrarily, capriciously, and unilaterally terminate the TIAA-CREF plan and repurchase the non-vested and vested portions of the TIAA-CREF plan and by violating ERISA, its supporting regulations, Federal common law of ERISA and Pennsylvania common law regulating employee benefit plans.

61. As a proximate result of the aforementioned actions of TIAA-CREF, Plaintiff has been denied the benefits to which she is entitled under the TIAA-CREF plan, all in violation of ERISA.*fn3

Contentions of the Parties

Defendant TIAA-CREF argues that default should be vacated "because good cause exists." More specifically, defendant argues that default should be vacated because (1) default is not the result of willful conduct; (2) defendant took prompt action upon entry of the default; (3) defendant has a meritorious defense; and (4) there is no ...


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