UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. BURKE
MEMORANDUM OPINION resolving 9 plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and ORDER denying the motion. Signed by Judge David S. Cercone on 9/15/17. (mwm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
TIMOTHY L. BURKE a/k/a
BURKE, TIMOTHY L.,
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT
Pending before the court in the above-captioned matter is a motion for judgment on the
pleadings filed by the United States (referred to hereafter, at times, as the “government”). For
the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.
The United States commenced this case against defendant Timothy L. Burke (hereafter,
“Burke”) on August 30, 2016. In its complaint, see Doc. No. 1, the government alleged that
Burke was indebted to it in the total amount of $43,967.81 as of November 3, 2015. Compl. ¶3.
Attached to the complaint, and incorporated by reference, are Certificates of Indebtedness that
purportedly certify the debt Burke allegedly owes as a result of defaulted student loans. Id. ¶4;
see Compl. Ex. A. According to the complaint, “[d]emand has been made upon [Burke] by [the
government] for the sum due but the amount due remains unpaid.” Compl. ¶5. In its ad
damnum clause, the government requested a monetary judgment in the amount of $43,967.81,
plus prejudgment interest, administrative costs, “service of process costs allowed by law,” postjudgment interest, and attorney’s fees as “allowed by law or contract.” Id. (ad damnum clause).
On October 31, 2016, Burke filed his answer to the complaint. See Doc. No. 2. Therein,
Burke admitted the government’s allegations concerning this court’s subject-matter jurisdiction
and his own “last-known address.” Answer ¶¶1-2. Burke denied as “untrue” the United States’
allegations about: (a) the amount of debt owed, (b) the validity of the government’s Certificates
of Indebtedness, and (c) Burke’s failure to pay his debts despite the government’s prior demand.
Id. ¶¶3-5. Burke also asserted the defense of failure to state a claim upon which relief may be
granted. Id. (“Defenses”).
Thereafter, the United States filed the instant motion for judgment on the pleadings. See
Doc. No. 9. The government contends that Burke’s answer is “not sufficiently particular to
inform the Plaintiff as to the defenses it will be called upon to meet.” Doc. No. 9, ¶14. The
government argues that the answer violates “basic notions of due process, adequate notice and
fair play,” id. at ¶15 (citing White v. Smith, 91 F.R.D. 607, 608 (W.D.N.Y. 1981)), and will only
cause further delay in the resolution of this case. Id. at ¶17.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides that “after the pleadings are closed—but
early enough not to delay trial—a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Judgment on
the pleadings is appropriate only when the movant “‘clearly establishes that no material issue of
fact remains to be resolved and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.’” Minnesota
Lawyers Mut. Ins. Co. v. Ahrens, 432 F. App’x 143, 147 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Rosenau v.
Unifund Corp. 539 F.3d 218, 221 (3d Cir. 2008)).
In this case, the United States contends that it is entitled to judgment on the grounds that
Burke did not properly deny the allegations in Paragraphs 3 through 5 of the complaint. Those
paragraphs set forth the government’s averments that Burke has failed to repay $43,967.81 that is
currently due and owing, as evidenced by the appended Certificates of Indebtedness, despite the
government’s demand. Compl. ¶¶3-5. According to the United States, Burke’s general denial of
these averments as “untrue” is insufficient because it fails to inform the government as to the
defenses that the government will be called upon to meet. Based upon its review of the
pleadings, this court finds the United States’ argument unpersuasive.
Pursuant to Rule 8(b)(1), a party responding to a pleading must: “(A) state in short and
plain terms its defenses to each claim asserted against it; and (B) admit or deny the allegations
asserted against it by an opposing party.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(1)(A) and (B). “A denial must
fairly respond to the substance of the allegation.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(2). A denial may be
general or specific. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(3). “A party that does not intend to deny all the
allegations must either specifically deny designated allegations or generally deny all except those
specifically admitted.” Id. In addition, “[a] party that intends in good faith to deny only part of
an allegation must admit the part that is true and deny the rest.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(4). An
answer may refer by number to a paragraph in the complaint. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(b) (“A later
pleading may refer by number to a paragraph in an earlier pleading.”). “An allegation – other
than one relating to the amount of damages – is admitted if a responsive pleading is required and
the allegation is not denied.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(6).
Here, the government’s complaint consists of five (5) numbered paragraphs, an ad
damnum clause, and appended exhibits. Doc. No. 1. Burke’s answer states that the allegations
in the first two paragraphs are admitted and that the allegations in paragraphs 3 through 5 are
denied “as untrue.” Doc. No. 5. This is sufficient for purposes of Rule 8. See 5 Charles Alan
Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1266 (3d ed. 2004) (“The particular language or
form of the specific denial is not important as long as it is clear which allegations are being
negated and which are not. Usually, a party will indicate the averments denied by reprinting
them in full or by specifically denying them by paragraph number, since this type of reference is
permitted by Rule 10.”); see also White v. Smith, 91 F.R.D. 607, 608 (W.D. N.Y. 1981) (“For
the most part, denials are to be ‘specific denials of designated averments or paragraphs.’”)
(quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)). To the extent the government desires greater clarity concerning
the specific facts at issue in this case, it can utilize discovery and other pretrial procedures to
elucidate the exact contours of the disputed issues. See 5 Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal
Practice and Procedure § 1261 (3d ed. 2004) (“As is true of pleadings asserting a claim for relief,
“plain notice” of the issues being raised by the defendant is all that is required at the pleading
stage by the federal rules;[ ] the parties are provided with adequate discovery and pretrial
procedures to develop in detail the facts pertinent to their various claims and defenses and the
pleadings are not intended to carry that burden.[ ]”)(footnotes omitted). There is no reason to
believe that this will be an unduly burdensome or costly exercise in this case; as the government
itself acknowledges, “the Plaintiff and Defendant are the only two parties with respect to the loan
transaction that would have any information regarding the status of the loans and their
repayment.” Reply Br. of Pl. at 2, Doc. No. 15.
In support of its motion, the United States analogizes Burke’s answer to the responsive
pleading at issue in White v. Smith, supra. In White, the district court ruled that the defendants’
answer “[did] not come close to complying with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, not to
mention basic notions of due process, adequate notice and fair play.” 91 F.R.D. at 608. The
facts in White, however, are readily distinguishable from those at issue here. In White, the pro
se plaintiff filed a complaint that “plainly and cogently presented” his claims, 91 F.R.D. at 608,
and provided a “meticulously detailed and quite specific” description of the events surrounding
his allegedly unlawful extradition. Id. at 608-09. In response to the complaint, the defendants
jointly filed an answer in which they generally denied “each and every allegation of the
complaint which allege [sic] or tends to allege that they violated any of plaintiff’s
constitutionally protected rights.” Id. at 608 n.1. The court found this general denial insufficient
under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at 608. The court further concluded, based on
the circumstances of the case, that “delay, not the judicial resolution of this lawsuit, was first and
foremost on defense counsel’s mind when he signed and submitted defendants’ responsive
pleading.” Id. at 609.
This case does not involve circumstances that are comparable to those at issue in White.
First, the complaint is not factually complicated or terribly detailed, consisting only of five
enumerated averments. Second, Burke’s answer does not contain a nebulously worded general
denial like the one at issue in White; instead, it specifically denies certain of the government’s
factual averments while expressly admitting others. Third, there is nothing of record to suggest
that Burke’s answer was filed in bad faith or out of a desire to engage in delay tactics. This case
is, by all appearances, a fairly straightforward collections action, and there is no reason to
assume that pretrial procedures will be unduly complicated or protracted. Consequently, the
ruling in White has no relevance here.
Based on the foregoing reasons, the court is not persuaded that the government has
demonstrated grounds for entry of judgment under Rule 12(c). Accordingly, the following Order
AND NOW, this 15th day of September, 2017, for the reasons set forth in the
memorandum above, IT IS ORDERED that  plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) be, and the same hereby is, DENIED.
s/David Stewart Cercone
David Stewart Cercone
United States District Judge
John F. Kroto, Esquire
(Via CM/ECF Electronic Mail)
Timothy L. Burke
158 Lebanon Church Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15236
(Via First Class Mail)
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