Singh et al v. Bunch et al

Filing 73

ORDER Granting 63 Motion to Set Aside Default, Quash Service, and Dismiss Defendant Navarro signed by District Judge Dale A. Drozd on 10/24/2017. Frank Navarro terminated.(Flores, E)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 12 PRAVEEN SINGH and JOYTESHNA KARAN, Plaintiffs, 13 16 17 ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO SET ASIDE DEFAULT, QUASH SERVICE, AND DISMISS DEFENDANT NAVARRO v. 14 15 No. 1:15-cv-00646-DAD-BAM KIRK BUNCH, FRANK NAVARRO, DAVID HARRIS, BIRGIT FLADAGER, COUNTY OF STANISLAUS, STANISLAUS COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT, and ADAM CHRISTIANSON, 18 (Doc. No. 63) Defendants. 19 This matter comes before the court on defendant Frank Navarro’s motion to quash service 20 21 of process, filed September 12, 2017. (Doc. No. 63.) The motion was noticed for hearing on 22 September 12, 2017. Attorney John Whitefleet and Bradley Swingle appeared telephonically on 23 behalf of defendant Navarro. Plaintiff’s counsel, attorney Alejandro Herrera, appeared 24 telephonically at the hearing, but failed to file a written opposition to the pending motion. 25 Considering the arguments and evidence presented to the court, the court will grant the pending 26 motion, set aside the default, quash service of process, and dismiss defendant Navarro from this 27 case. 28 ///// 1 1 2 BACKGROUND This case concerns allegations of abusive and unlawful law enforcement actions by the 3 defendants against plaintiffs in connection with investigating the homicide of Korey Kauffman. 4 Details of the allegations of the complaint are set forth in the court’s prior orders and will not be 5 recounted here. (See Doc. Nos. 40, 58.) Defendant Navarro was an officer employed by the 6 Turlock Police Department. Pertinent to the current motion, a summons was issued by the court 7 naming defendant Navarro alongside defendants Fladager and Harris on April 28, 2015. (Doc. 8 No. 5.) A return of service was filed by plaintiff on November 30, 2015, indicating defendant 9 Navarro was served by leaving the summons and a copy of the complaint with Kelly Hines of the 10 Turlock Police Department. (Doc. No. 25.) Defendant Navarro declares in relation to the 11 pending motion to quash that he recalls receiving a summons in May 2015 in his cubicle’s 12 mailbox concerning this lawsuit, but disregarded it since the summons was addressed only to Kirk 13 Bunch, John Evers, and the County of Stanislaus, and not to him. (Doc. No. 65 at ¶ 2.) Indeed, 14 the summons defendant Navarro attaches as an exhibit to his declaration—the one he received 15 from plaintiff—is addressed to those three defendants and does not list Navarro’s name. (Id. at 16 5.) Defendant Navarro’s counsel avers he contacted plaintiffs’ counsel by telephone and e-mail 17 on August 14, 2017 and August 24, 2017 concerning the error in service and received no 18 response. (Doc. No. 66 at ¶ 3.) 19 A clerk’s entry of default was entered against defendant Navarro on August 11, 2017, at 20 plaintiff’s request. (Doc. Nos. 60, 61.) Defendant Navarro moved to set aside the entry of 21 default, quash service of process, and dismiss the complaint against him on September 12, 2017. 22 (Doc. No. 64.) As noted above, plaintiffs filed no written opposition to that motion. Defendant 23 Navarro filed a reply on October 10, 2017. (Doc. No. 68.) 24 25 LEGAL STANDARDS Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court “may set aside an entry 26 of default for good cause.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 55(c). In determining whether good cause exists to set 27 aside the entry of default, the court must consider three factors: (1) whether the defendant 28 engaged in culpable conduct that led to the default, (2) whether the defendant had a meritorious 2 1 defense, and (3) whether setting aside the entry of default would result in prejudice to the 2 plaintiff. Franchise Holding II, LLC. v. Huntington Restaurants Grp., Inc., 375 F.3d 922, 925–26 3 (9th Cir. 2004); accord United States v. Signed Pers. Check No. 730 of Yubran S. Mesle, 615 F.3d 4 1085, 1091 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Falk v. Allen, 739 F.2d 461, 463 (9th Cir. 1984). “[T]he 5 burden on a party seeking to vacate a default judgment is not extraordinarily heavy.” TCI Grp. 6 Life Ins. Plan v. Knoebber, 244 F.3d 691, 700 (9th Cir. 2001) overruled on other grounds by 7 Egelhoff v. Egelhoff ex rel. Breiner, 532 U.S. 141 (2001). While the decision of whether to set 8 aside an entry of default is committed to the sound discretion of the district courts, this discretion 9 “is especially broad where, as here, it is entry of default that is being set aside, rather than a 10 default judgment.” Mendoza v. Wight Vineyard Mgmt., 783 F.2d 941, 945 (9th Cir. 1986); see 11 also O’Connor v. State of Nevada, 27 F.3d 357, 364 (9th Cir. 1994). 12 Additionally, a defendant may move to dismiss an action where the plaintiff has failed to 13 effect proper service of process in compliance with the requirements set forth under Rule 4 of the 14 Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for serving a defendant. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(5). If the court 15 determines that the plaintiff has not properly served the defendant in accordance with the 16 requirements of Rule 4, the court has discretion to either dismiss the action for failure to effect 17 proper service, or merely quash the ineffective service that has been made on the defendant in 18 order to provide the plaintiff with the opportunity to properly serve the defendant. Marshall v. 19 Warwick, 155 F.3d 1027, 1032 (8th Cir. 1998) (“[D]ismissal [is not] invariably required where 20 service is ineffective: under such circumstances, the [district] court has discretion to either 21 dismiss the action, or quash service but retain the case.”). 22 ANALYSIS 23 A. Motion to Set Aside Entry of Default 24 Defendant Navarro requests the court set aside the entry of default because he did not 25 know he was named as a defendant in this suit, he has a meritorious defense to the suit insofar as 26 he believes it fails to state a cognizable claim against him, and plaintiffs would not be prejudiced 27 by setting aside the default. (Doc. No. 64 at 5–7.) 28 ///// 3 1 “If a defendant ‘has received actual or constructive notice of the filing of the action and 2 failed to answer,’ [his] conduct is culpable.” Franchise Holding II, LLC, 375 F.3d at 926 3 (quoting Direct Mail Specialists, Inc. v. Eclat Computerized Techs., Inc., 840 F.2d 685, 690 (9th 4 Cir. 1988)). However, “to treat a failure to answer as culpable, the movant must have acted with 5 bad faith, such as an ‘intention to take advantage of the opposing party, interfere with judicial 6 decision[-]making, or otherwise manipulate the legal process.’” Mesle, 615 F.3d at 1092 (quoting 7 TCI Grp., 244 F.3d at 697). Here, defendant Navarro explains that he received the summons, but 8 because it did not list his name, he “did not believe it was directed to [his] attention.” (Doc. No. 9 65 at ¶ 2.) This explanation is only marginally plausible. Defendant Navarro notes in the same 10 declaration that he received a copy of both the summons and the complaint. (Id.) The complaint 11 clearly lists defendant Navarro as the second named defendant. While it is true his name did not 12 appear on the summons itself, one of the purposes of a summons is to advise the defendant that he 13 has been named in a complaint. See Cabrera v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dep’t, No. 2:12-cv- 14 00918-RFB-CWH, 2014 WL 6634821, at *4 (D. Nev. Nov. 21, 2014) (noting rules for service of 15 process “are to be applied in a manner that will best effectuate their purpose of giving the 16 defendant adequate notice”) (quoting Direct Mail Specialists, Inc., 840 F.2d at 688). Certainly, 17 providing the complaint along with the summons puts that defendant on constructive notice of the 18 action’s filing and his potential involvement in it. However, a lay person may have been 19 confused by the summons’ failure to name him. Therefore, this factor does not weigh strongly 20 for or against defendant’s motion. 21 Defendant Navarro next argues that he had a meritorious defense because he is mentioned 22 “only a single time in the entire Complaint,” and would bring a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) to 23 dismiss the case for failure to state a claim. (Doc. No. 64 at 5–6 (emphasis removed).) This 24 argument is not persuasive. While Navarro is not mentioned individually with great frequency in 25 the first amended complaint (“FAC”), that document notes early on that defendants Bunch, 26 Navarro, and Evers would be collectively referenced as “the Investigators” throughout the 27 complaint. (Doc. No. 31 at ¶ 11.) The FAC is replete with factual allegations against “the 28 Investigators”—clearly including defendant Navarro. (See, e.g., id. at ¶ 17 (“[A]s the election got 4 1 closer, the Investigators became more aggressive towards Mr. Singh (and Mr. Carson), pressuring 2 him more and more to “turn over Carson,” or give them “something on Carson.”); id. at ¶ 23 3 (alleging the investigators accused plaintiff Singh of wrongdoing during a six-hour interrogation, 4 did not take steps to preserve evidence, and refused to provide a transcript of his polygraph 5 examination); id. at ¶ 24 (stating investigators began to threaten plaintiffs’ family and friends and 6 tell them plaintiff Singh is a murderer); id. at ¶ 25 (plaintiffs’ friends were threatened by the 7 investigators and told plaintiff Singh was a murderer and a pimp); id. at ¶ 26 (the investigators 8 threatened plaintiff Karan with an investigation for real estate fraud “if she didn’t ‘give them what 9 they wanted’”).) If defendant Navarro’s sole argument in a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) was that 10 he was only named once in the complaint, this argument would not be meritorious, particularly 11 since the court has heard a motion to dismiss in this matter and found the complaint states at least 12 some cognizable claims against one of the other investigators, defendant Bunch. (See Doc. No. 13 40.) Furthermore, what is necessary to satisfy the “meritorious defense” requirement is that the 14 defendant “allege sufficient facts that, if true, would constitute a defense.” United States v. 15 Aguilar, 782 F.3d 1101, 1107 (9th Cir. 2015) (emphasis added) (quoting Mesle, 615 F.3d at 16 1092). While “the question [of] whether the factual allegation [i]s true is not to be determined by 17 the court when it decides the motion to set aside the default,” and the court is merely looking to 18 see whether the factual question “would be the subject of the later litigation,” id. (internal 19 quotations omitted), defendant Navarro has not stated any factual allegations that would 20 constitute a defense. Instead, he suggests he would defend solely on a legal ground of uncertain 21 merit. The court concludes this factor weighs against allowing defendant Navarro to set aside the 22 entry of default. 23 Finally, the question of whether plaintiffs would be prejudiced is easily answered in the 24 negative. “To be prejudicial, the setting aside of a judgment must result in greater harm than 25 simply delaying resolution of the case.” Mesle, 615 F.3d at 1095 (quoting TCI Grp., 244 F.3d at 26 701). This case has not yet even had an initial scheduling conference, and therefore no deadlines 27 have passed that the setting aside of default would affect. Discovery has yet to open, and 28 plaintiffs will experience no prejudice by the setting aside of this default. 5 1 The law clearly supports procedural decisions that encourage cases to be decided on the 2 merits. See Mesle, 615 F.3d at 1089 (“[A] case should, whenever possible, be decided on the 3 merits.”) (quoting Falk, 739 F.2d at 463); Franchise Holding II, LLC, 375 F.3d at 924. 4 Combining this with the fact that no prejudice will inure to plaintiffs by allowing the entry of 5 default to be set aside, the court will exercise its discretion to set aside the entry of default, 6 notwithstanding any factors weighing against doing so here. 7 B. 8 Having set aside the default, the court now turns to the separate question of whether 9 Motion to Quash Service and Dismiss Defendant Navarro defendant Navarro’s motion to quash service should be granted and, if so, whether he should be 10 dismissed from the case. This court recently addressed a similar issue in this case concerning 11 defendant Evers in July 2017. (See Doc. No. 58.) 12 As the court has previously stated, under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 13 an individual may be served by “following state law for serving a summons in an action brought 14 in courts of general jurisdiction in the state where the district court is located or where service is 15 made.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e)(1).1 In California, such methods of service include, in pertinent part, 16 (1) personal delivery to a defendant or authorized agent; or (2) delivery by “substitute service” to 17 someone else at defendant’s residence or place of business. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §§ 415.10, 18 415.20. None of the proofs of service filed by plaintiffs indicate defendant Navarro was served 19 personally. (See Doc. Nos. 25, 46.2) Given this, the court must determine whether plaintiffs 20 properly effected substitute service, keeping in mind that “[s]o long as a party receives sufficient 21 notice of the complaint, Rule 4 is to be ‘liberally construed’ to uphold service.” Travelers Cas. & 22 Sur. Co. of Am. v. Brenneke, 551 F.3d 1132, 1135 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Chan v. Soc’y 23 Expeditions, Inc., 39 F.3d 1398, 1404 (9th Cir. 1994)). Further, “[t]echnical defects in a 24 ///// 25 1 26 27 28 Alternatively, Rule 4 also sets forth enumerated methods of service, but methods of service under California law are generally broader. 2 While filed on separate dates, these appear to reflect the same, singular attempt to serve defendant Navarro. (Compare Doc. No. 25 with Doc. No. 46.) 6 1 summons do not justify dismissal unless a party is able to demonstrate actual prejudice.” Chan, 2 39 F.3d at 1404. 3 As an initial matter, under California law, a summons “shall be directed to the defendant.” 4 Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 412.20(a). Defendant Navarro declares that the summons he receives was 5 not directed to him. (Doc. No. 65 at ¶ 2.) Indeed, the summons he attaches as an exhibit to his 6 motion does not list his name. (See id. at 5.) Clearly, service here was facially deficient. 7 Moreover, as with defendant Evers, California law allows substitute service—including 8 leaving a copy of the summons and complaint at a person’s usual place of business—but first 9 requires the plaintiff to attempt personal service with reasonable diligence. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code 10 § 415.20(b). When a defendant challenges this method of service, the plaintiff bears the burden 11 to demonstrate that she made reasonable attempts to serve the defendant personally before 12 resorting to substitute service. Evartt v. Superior Court, 89 Cal. App. 3d 795, 801 (1979). After 13 copies of the summons and complaint are delivered, plaintiffs must also mail separate copies “by 14 first-class mail, postage prepaid to the person to be served at the place where a copy of the 15 summons and complaint were left.” § 415.20(b). Plaintiffs here have made no showing that they 16 ever attempted to serve defendant Navarro personally, nor that they have mailed him a separate 17 copy of the summons and complaint. 18 The court next turns to whether defendant Navarro should be dismissed from the case. “If 19 a defendant is not served within 90 days after the complaint is filed, the court—on motion or on 20 its own after notice to the plaintiff—must dismiss the action without prejudice against that 21 defendant or order that service be made within a specified time.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m). “Rule 4 is 22 a flexible rule that should be liberally construed so long as a party receives sufficient notice of the 23 complaint.” Whidbee v. Pierce County, 857 F.3d 1019, 1023 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Direct Mail 24 Specialists, Inc. v. Eclat Computerized Techs., Inc., 840 F.2d 685, 688 (9th Cir. 1988)). Even 25 when a plaintiff has failed to correctly make service, the court must allow plaintiff additional time 26 for service “if the plaintiff shows good cause for the failure” to serve defendant. Fed. R. Civ. P. 27 4(m); see also Lemoge v. United States, 587 F.3d 1188, 1198 (9th Cir. 2009) (“[T]he district court 28 must extend time for service upon a showing of good cause.”). Additionally, “if good cause is 7 1 not established, the district court may extend time for service upon a showing of excusable 2 neglect.” Lemoge, 587 F.3d at 1198; see also Crowley v. Bannister, 734 F.3d 967, 976 (9th Cir. 3 2013); United States v. 2,164 Watches, 366 F.3d 767, 772 (9th Cir. 2004) (noting that courts have 4 broad discretion to extend time for service, if warranted, and need not require a showing of good 5 cause). Good cause is shown by establishing excusable neglect, along with actual notice to the 6 party that should have been served, a lack of prejudice to the unserved party, and severe prejudice 7 to the plaintiff. Lemoge, 587 F.3d at 1198 n.3. 8 9 Plaintiffs have not attempted to establish either good cause or excusable neglect here and have not explained why the suit should not be dismissed without prejudice against defendant 10 Navarro. Even construing Rule 4 liberally, it is clear plaintiffs have not complied with the 11 requirements for service of process and have presented no reason for their failure to do so. 12 Furthermore, this case has now been pending before the court for more than two and a half years 13 and has yet to proceed to an initial scheduling conference. Therefore, service is quashed and 14 defendant Navarro will be dismissed from this action without prejudice. 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 CONCLUSION For the reasons given above: 1. The motion to set aside the entry of default, quash service of process, and dismiss defendant Navarro from the complaint (Doc. No. 63) is granted; 2. Defendant Navarro and all claims against him are dismissed, without prejudice, from this action; and 3. This matter is referred back to the assigned magistrate judge for further proceedings consistent with this order. IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: October 24, 2017 UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 25 26 27 28 8

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