Inherent Power — Dismissal: Court Must Consider Lesser Sanctions & the Misconduct Must Interfere with the Rightful Decision of the Case — Default: Circuit’s Factors for Lifting Trump Local Rule Criteria
Figueroa v. Cnty. of L.A., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 10555 (9th Cir. June 10, 2016):
Sergeant Gonzalez appeals from the district court's denial of his motion for relief from default and the defendants appeal from the district court's grant of attorneys' fees for plaintiff Leocadio Figueroa. Mr. Figueroa appeals from the district court's denial of his motion for new trial against Deputy Perez. We vacate the denial of Sergeant Gonzalez's motion for relief from default, vacate the attorneys' fee award, and affirm the denial of the motion for new trial.
Mr. Figueroa got into an argument with Deputy Sheriff Perez, when he went to visit his brother who was in jail, but the brother was not available because he was being disciplined. A scuffle broke out and after four deputies subdued and handcuffed Mr. Figueroa, he had a broken arm. Mr. Figueroa filed a §1983 action against the four deputies, their supervisor Sergeant Gonzalez, Sheriff Baca, and the County of Los [*4] Angeles. Trial was bifurcated.
The case against the four deputies was tried first and resulted in a jury verdict in favor of the deputies. Only Deputy Perez was found to have used excessive force, but the jury found that he reasonably believed the amount of force used to subdue Mr. Figueroa was not excessive. Mr. Figueroa has filed an appeal from the district court's denial of his motion for a new trial against Deputy Perez.
When the district court proceeded to the second phase of the trial against Sergeant Gonzalez, Sheriff Baca, and the County of Los Angeles, defense counsel informed the court that Sergeant Gonzalez would not be present as he had gone to the Dominican Republic to get married or engaged. Defense counsel told the court that he had telephoned Sergeant Gonzalez but he had not answered or acknowledged the messages he had left. The district court then entered a default judgment against Sergeant Gonzalez.
Sergeant Gonzalez subsequently filed a motion for relief from default based on his declaration that he did not know he had to be present for the second phase of the trial and did not receive any of counsel's phone messages because he had no cell phone service in the Dominican [*5] Republic. The district court denied the motion for relief and Sergeant Gonzalez has appealed from that order. The defendants have also appealed from an order awarding Mr. Figueroa attorneys' fees.
1. The District Court abused its discretion in denying Sergeant Gonzalez's motion for relief from default judgment. In denying the motion, the district court relied on a local rule instead of the factors set forth in Falk v. Allen, 739 F.2d 461 (9th Cir. 1984). These factors are: "(1) whether the party seeking to set aside the default engaged in culpable conduct that led to the default; (2) whether it had no meritorious defense; or (3) whether reopening the default judgment would prejudice the other party." United States v. Aguilar, 782 F.3d 1101, 1105 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).
It appears that Sergeant Gonzalez has a meritorious defense and there is no showing that Mr. Figueroa will be unduly prejudiced from reopening. Thus, the propriety of the district court's order appears to turn on an evaluation of Sergeant Gonzalez's culpability.
Our decision is guided by two prior opinions. In Phoceene Sous-Marine, S.A. v. U.S. Phosmarine, Inc., 682 F.2d 802, 806 (9th Cir. 1982), we noted that, under Supreme Court precedent, "a court could not, consistent with the requirements of due process, strike a defendant's answer and enter default as punishment for contempt." [*6] In Halaco Eng'g Co. v. Costle, 843 F.2d 376, 381 (9th Cir. 1988), we held that, before dismissing an action under its inherent powers, a court must consider less drastic sanctions, and that "[t]he most critical criterion for the imposition of a dismissal sanction is that the misconduct penalized must relate to matters in controversy in such a way as to interfere with the rightful decision of the case."
Here, Sergeant Gonzalez's conduct did not warrant default being entered against him. He was not subpoenaed to attend the second phase of the trial. Even if his attorneys had agreed to produce him, it appears that they did not tell him he had to attend. Sergeant Gonzalez could have believed that his attendance was unnecessary in light of the verdict in favor of the deputies. Also, there is no competent evidence to counter Sergeant Gonzalez's declaration that he did not have cell phone service in the Dominican Republic.
Moreover, it is not clear that Sergeant Gonzalez's presence was critical to Mr. Figueroa's claim against him. Presumably, Mr. Figueroa's claim is based on documents and testimony of individuals other than Sergeant Gonzalez (particularly as Mr. Figueroa did not depose Sergeant Gonzalez). However, the district court did not (a) require that [*7] Mr. Figueroa proffer his case against Sergeant Gonzalez, (b) consider whether the claim could be tried without Sergeant Gonzalez, with the jury drawing an adverse inference from his absence, or (c) consider any other alternatives to default.
In light of the district court's failure to apply the Falk factors, the lack of personal culpability on the part of Gonzalez, the district court's miscalculation of the importance of Gonzalez's presence, and the district court's failure to consider alternatives, we vacate the denial of Gonzalez's motion for relief from default and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.
2. With the vacation of the default judgment against Sergeant Gonzalez, Mr. Figueroa is no longer a prevailing party and accordingly the award of attorneys' fees is also vacated.
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