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Hallett v. Doe

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 5, 2019




         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 6, 2016, Plaintiff Jason Hallett filed a complaint against John Doe, an officer in the Philadelphia Police Department, alleging Fourth Amendment violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment and battery. Then, on December 20, 2016, the Court sent Hallett a letter alerting him that no proof of service had been filed and advising him that the case would be dismissed if Defendant was not served by January 3, 2017, and if no proof of service was filed by January 8. No. proof of service was filed by January 8. The Court subsequently dismissed the case without prejudice in January 2017 for failure to make service in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m), which requires a plaintiff to serve process on a defendant within 90 days of filing his complaint.

         About a month after the dismissal, Hallett filed an affidavit of service stating that process had in fact been served on an individual at the Philadelphia Police Department in October 2016. Along with the affidavit, Hallett included a letter noting that he had previously failed to file the affidavit of service, though he did not explain why he had not complied with the deadlines detailed in the Court's December 20 letter. Then, in December 2017-about ten months after filing the already belated affidavit-Hallett sent a letter to the Court requesting that his case be reactivated. However, Hallett did not formally move to reactivate his case until May 8, 2019. Though Hallett sent a letter requesting reactivation in December 2017, such requests must be made by motion. See F.R.C.P 7(b); see also Wendy Beetlestone, J., Policies and Procedures at 1. The Court granted Hallett's motion to reactivate on June 16, 2019. Hallett now moves for a default judgement against Officer John Doe.


         Hallett's motion for default underscores the broader issues with his case. First, Hallett's motion is procedurally problematic because he has not complied with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55.

[T]he Third Circuit . . . has set forth a two-step process for attaining a default judgment [under Rule 55]. First, a party must successfully request the Clerk of Court to enter the other party's default. Second, after receiving the Clerk's entry of default, the party must submit a motion for default judgment to the court. Adherence to this procedural sequence is essential as courts have consistently held that the Clerk must first enter a default in order to proceed with a motion to grant default judgment.

DiIorio v. SanCassiano, S.P.A., 2012 WL 4932037, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 17, 2012) (internal citations omitted); see also Husain v. Casino Control Comm'n, 265 Fed.Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2008) (explaining that entry of default by the clerk “constitutes a general prerequisite” for entry of default by the Court). Hallett has not requested default from the Clerk, and no default has been entered. Therefore, he has not complied with Rule 55.

         Second, Hallett's motion is substantively problematic because the record contains nothing to indicate Defendant has received notice of the suit against him. While Hallett served his complaint against an individual at the Philadelphia Police Department, the record does not show that Defendant himself is aware of the lawsuit. Hallett argues that default should be entered against Defendant for a failure to “plead or otherwise defend, ” but a Defendant must be served before he can defend himself.

         Furthermore, Hallett's failure to properly serve John Doe has jeopardized his underlying case. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4 governs service of process. Though Rule 4 contains no provisions pertaining specifically to the service of John Doe's, courts in this circuit have dismissed suits for failure to comply with Rule 4 where plaintiffs have not named a defendant following the filing of a John Doe complaint. For example, in Bartow v. Cambridge Springs SCI, the court dismissed plaintiff's suit against a John Doe for noncompliance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(e) where plaintiff “never specifically identified the names of the John Doe defendants.” 2007 WL 543060, at *6 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 16, 2007), aff'd, 285 Fed.Appx. 862 (3d Cir. 2008). Likewise, in Manuel v. Adkins, the court dismissed plaintiff's claim against a John Doe where no attempt was made to substitute an individual for the John Doe. Manuel v. Atkins, 948 F.Supp.2d 401, 405 (D. Del.), aff'd, 545 Fed.Appx. 91 (3d Cir. 2013).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) provides that a court may dismiss an action “[i]f the plaintiff fails to prosecute or to comply with [the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] or a court order.” A court may dismiss an action for failure to prosecute sua sponte, or on its own motion. Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 630 (1962). Such a dismissal operates “as a dismissal on the merits”-meaning that such a dismissal is with prejudice-unless the Court otherwise specifies. See F.R.C.P. 41(b). “A federal trial court is empowered to dismiss such actions because it must be able to effectively rid its docket of such cases that interfere with the ability of diligent litigants to obtain prompt judicial resolution of their disputes.” Milligan v. Davidson, 1996 WL 680134, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 1996). Though “the Third Circuit Court of Appeals [has] emphasized its strong policy favoring decisions on the merits and cautioned that dismissal with prejudice is an ‘extreme sanction' and ‘a sanction of last, not first, resort,' it ‘has not hesitated to affirm . . . district court[s'] . . . dismissals in appropriate cases.'” Id. (internal quotations omitted).

         In determining whether to dismiss an action either with or without prejudice, a court may consider the six factors set forth in Poulis v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., 747 F.2d 863 (3d Cir. 1984). If dismissal is to be with prejudice, the court must engage in a balancing of these factors. See, e.g., Herrman v. Allstate Ins. Co., 450 F.Supp.2d 537, 542 (E.D. Pa. 2006). “None of the Poulis factors is alone dispositive, and . . . not all of the factors need to be satisfied to justify dismissal of a complaint for lack of prosecution.” Hildebrand v. Allegheny Cty., 923 F.3d 128, 132 (3d Cir. 2019). The factors are:

(1) the extent of the party's personal responsibility; (2) the prejudice to the adversary caused by the failure to meet scheduling orders and respond to discovery; (3) a history of dilatoriness; (4) whether the conduct of the party or the attorney was willful or in bad faith; (5) the effectiveness of sanctions other than dismissal, which entails ...

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