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April 30, 2004.

DARLINGTON AMADASU. M.D., Plaintiff, -against- MARGARET ROSENBERG, M.D., et al., Defendants

The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEWIS KAPLAN, District Judge


Plaintiff moves to set aside two orders — one of February 23 and the other of February 27, 2004 — by Chief Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck, to whom this matter has been referred for pretrial matters and dispositive motions, as well as a great deal of other relief.

In view of the order of reference, all of the relief sought by the motion save that with respect to the two challenged orders must be sought from Judge Peck. That aspect of the motion therefore is denied without prejudice to renewal before Judge Peck. The aspect of the motion that seeks to have the two orders set aside will be treated as an appeal from those orders.

 The February 23, 2004 Order

  On December 22, 2003, counsel representing defendants Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. Miguel Fuentes, Milton A. Gumbs, M.D., the Wilson Elser firm, Ricki E. Roer and Erika Stein (the "Bronx-Lebanon Defendants.") by letter asked the undersigned to dismiss the complaint sun sponte on the ground that it was barred by the statute of limitations. The Court denied the application by endorsement, which pointed out these defendants' right to make any dispositive motion they wished. (Docket item 18) Notwithstanding that ruling, the Bronx-Lebanon Defendants failed to answer the complaint.

  On February 20, 2004, plaintiff moved to enter defaults against the Bronx-Lebanon Defendants as well as Mabel Brevett, Camille Gustave, Marcy Schaffer, Genevieve MacSteel, and institute for Urban Family Health. Inc.*fn1 (Docket item 40)

  Judge Peck held a conference on February 23, 2004 at which time all or most of the allegedly defaulting defendants appeared either by counsel or pro se. The court began by indicating that the complaint was lengthy and that it was not clear which defendants were being sued on which claims.*fn2 It suggested to plaintiff "that it would make an awful lot of sense, because defendants are referring in their letters to the court to the statute of limitations, for you to amend the complaint to make it very clear what it is you think each defendant did[,] when and how that applies to each cause of action[,] which defendants are involved in each cause of action."*fn3 The plaintiff responded by contending that at least some of the defendants had not answered.*fn4 Judge Peck acknowledged that there might be technical defaults but went on to say that "[e]ven if there are, unless [plaintiff] can show prejudice, any motion for a default judgment that is countered by a defendant saying . . . at worst, oops, we blew our deadline, but we're here, you are not going to win on default."*fn5 He went on to inquire whether plaintiff wished to have a briefing schedule set for motions with respect to the complaint or whether, instead, he would "like . . . to try to clarify the pleadings at this point."*fn6

  Plaintiff persisted in his contention that the defendants were in default. The court responded by saying that, to the extent plaintiff's remarks could be construed as an oral motion for a default judgment, the motion was denied.*fn7 After further discussion, plaintiff acquiesced in the suggestion that he file an amended complaint.*fn8 Nevertheless, some time later, plaintiff "object[ed] to the idea of not having a right to make a motion" and then referred to a motion under "Rule 56(a), 50(b) and 56(c)," which Judge Peck understandably took to be a reference to a possible motion for summary judgment.*fn9 The conference concluded with the court staying discovery pending disposition of motions to dismiss and warning defendants of the risk of a default judgment if they failed to respond.*fn10 Following the conference, Judge Peck entered the February 23 order, which directed plaintiff to serve and file an amended complaint by March 26, set a briefing schedule to be followed in the event the defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint, and stayed discovery until decision of any such motion or other order of the court.*fn11 Plaintiff evidently feels that these rulings effectively deprived him of default judgments to which he otherwise would have been entitled and thus evidenced bias and partiality on the part of the Magistrate Judge.

  Chief Magistrate Judge Peck had broad discretion to manage the proceedings before him. Rulings by magistrate judges on matters of this nature may be set aside only if they rest on errors of law or clearly erroneous factual determinations. The February 23 order reflects nothing of that sort. Nor does anything in the record suggest bias or partiality.

 The February 27 Order

  On February 27, 2004, Judge Peck endorsed the following order on plaintiff's motion for a default:
"A substantially similar oral application for this relief was DENIED by this Court at the conference on 2/23/04 (see transcript). This motion is DENIED for the same reasons."
  An application for entry of a default, as distinguished from a default judgment, is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a) and should be addressed to the Clerk of the Court rather than the judicial officer presiding.*fn12 Nevertheless, the Clerk of this Court refers all such applications to judicial officers. Accordingly, the application was sent to Judge Peck.

  The Court assumes, as did Judge Peck, that some of the defendants were in default The Court assumes, as did Judge Peck, that some of the defendants were in default in late February 2004. Nevertheless, that does not warrant the conclusion that his order should be reversed.

  A district court "has broad discretion to determine whether to overlook a party's failure to comply with local court rules."*fn13 It has similar discretion also to grant extensions of time.*fn14 It is admonished by Fed.R.Civ.P. 1 to construe the rules of procedure "to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action." Moreover, a default judgment may be vacated, in the discretion of the district court, upon consideration of the relative willfulness of the default, whether the defendant has shown the existence of a meritorious defense, and the prejudice or lack of prejudice to the plaintiff.*fn15 Little is required in order to establish the existence of a meritorious defense.*fn16 As noted, the standard for vacating a Rule 55(a) default is even more forgiving. And the Second Circuit has made clear the strong preference for disposition of lawsuits on the merits rather than by default judgments.*fn17

  Against this background, Judge Peck did no more than recognize what is a commonplace among judges and lawyers, although there is no reason to suppose that it is known to plaintiff, who proceeds pro se. There was nothing before the Court to suggest that plaintiff would have been prejudiced by vacatur of a default, and certainly defendants had given the judge reason to believe that the statute of limitations, at the very least, was a meritorious defense in the limited and specialized sense in which the term is used in this context. Nor was there reason to believe that any defaults were particularly egregious. Had defaults been entered, they would have been vacated upon application by the affected defendants. Thus, the likely effect of granting plaintiff's ...

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