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Kovalchik v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 21, 2017

ASHLEY AUTUMN KOVALCHIK, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK and TONY SIMMONS, individually and in his official capacity, Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER ADOPTING REPORT & RECOMMENDATION

          Ronnie Abrams United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Ashley Autumn Kovalchik brings this action against Defendant Tony Simmons, a former employee of the City of New York's Department of Juvenile Justice, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Before the Court is the March 21, 2016 Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Frank Maas (the "Report"), which recommends that the Court award Kovalchik $300, 000 in compensatory damages, $300, 000 in punitive damages, $4, 040 in attorney's fees, and $350 in costs. Also before the Court is Simmons' request that the Court set aside the entry of default. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Simmons' request to set aside the default and adopts the Report in its entirety.

         BACKGROUND

         In September 2005, Kovalchik was a fifteen-year-old resident of a youth detention facility in New York. On or about September 12, 2005, Kovalchik was scheduled to appear before the New York County Family Court. See Compl. ¶ 13 (Dkt. 1). Simmons, then a sworn officer and an official of the Department of Juvenile Justice, escorted Kovalchik from a holding center to an elevator. See Id. ¶ 16. Once in the elevator, Simmons allegedly raped Kovalchik. See Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Simmons was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting Kovalchik and other female juvenile detainees in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services. See Id. ¶¶ 25, 28.[1]

         On May 13, 2009, Kovalchik brought this action against Simmons and the City of New York under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her constitutional rights. On May 28, 2009, Simmons was served with the summons and complaint. See Dkt. 6. Although he was deposed at least twice over the next three years, see Decl. of David M. Pollack in Supp. of Def's Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pollack Deck") Ex. B at 1 (Dkt. 50); Decl. of Arkady Frekhtman in Supp. of Def's Mot. for Summ. J. ("Frekhtman Deck") Ex. C at 1 (Dkt. 61), Simmons did not answer or otherwise respond to the complaint. The City, however, answered the complaint and, after four years of discovery, moved for summary judgment. See Answer (Dkt. 4); Def's Mot. for Summ. J. (Dkt. 48). Kovalchik cross-moved for summary judgment against the City and Simmons. See PL's Mot. for Summ. J. (Dkt. 55). Simmons did not respond to Kovalchik's motion. On September 18, 2014, the Court granted the City's motion for summary judgment and denied Kovalchik's cross-motion for summary judgment. See Opinion & Order (Dkt. 64).

         On October 15, 2014, upon Kovalchik's request, the Clerk of Court entered a certificate of default against Simmons. See Clerk's Certificate (Dkt. 67). On November 4, 2014, Kovalchik moved for default judgment against Simmons. See Mot. for Default J. (Dkt. 69). On November 21, 2014, the Court held an order to show cause hearing on Kovalchik's motion; Simmons did not appear. The same day, the Court granted Kovalchik's motion and referred the case to Judge Maas for a damages inquest. See Order (Dkt. 71).

         On March 21, 2016, Judge Maas issued the Report. See Dkt. 82. Judge Maas noted that although Kovalchik had submitted her inquest papers on March 19, 2015, Simmons had not responded to the inquest order and had not made any contact with the Court. See Report at 2. After reviewing Kovalchik's evidence, Judge Maas recommended that the Court award Kovalchik $604, 390, consisting of $300, 000 in compensatory damages, $300, 000 in punitive damages, $4, 040 in attorney's fees, and $350 in costs. See Id. at 2, 20. Judge Maas advised the parties that any written objections to the Report must be filed within fourteen days of service. See Id. at 21.

         On March 30, 2016, Simmons submitted a letter to the Court-his first correspondence with the Court in the nearly seven years that the case had been pending. See PL's Letter to Ct. (Mar. 30, 2016) (Dkt. 84). Simmons wrote that he "came home from prison [on] Feb. 25, 2015 and only ha[s] a temporary job as a helper on a food truck, " that he did "not understand anything about a report and recommendation, " and that he had "no clue what to do." Id. Over the next eight months, the Court granted Simmons six extensions of time to file objections to the Report. See Dkts. 85, 88, 91, 94, 95, 96. Simmons' current counsel represents that, during this period, Simmons was arrested for a parole violation, entered a drug-treatment facility, and lost contact with his attorney. See PL's Letter to Ct. at 1-2 (Oct. 28, 2016) (Dkt. 96).

         On December 30, 2016, Simmons filed a response to the Report. See Def's Obj. to the Report & Recommendation (Dkt. 97); Tony Simmons Aff in Supp. of Mot. to Set Aside Default J. & Obj. to the R. & R. ("Simmons Aff") (Dkt. 97-2). According to his affidavit, Simmons was incarcerated from January 25, 2011 to February 25, 2015. See Simmons Aff. ¶ 2. Simmons claims that, while he was in custody, his former attorney "counseled [him] to disregard all communications regarding [this] case, " advising Simmons that he "would take care of this civil matter ... by obtaining a 'stay.'" Id. ¶ 3. Simmons claims that he "believed that [he] was excused from making any appearance or filing any responses" in this case. Id. Simmons notes that he "was found not guilty in the criminal trial of Ms. Kovalchik's allegations in this case" and asserts that he has a "meritorious defense that [he] did not commit any of the torts Ms. Kovalchik alleges." Id. ¶ 7. While Simmons did not file a formal motion to set aside the default, he submitted his affidavit "in support of motion to set aside default judgment."

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 55(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court "may set aside an entry of default for good cause." Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(c).[2] "Because Rule 55(c) does not define the term 'good cause, ' the Second Circuit has established three criteria that must be assessed in order to decide whether to relieve a party from default or from a default judgment." Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local 2, Albany, N.Y.Pension Fund v. Moulton Masonry & Constr., LLC, 779 F.3d 182, 186 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (alterations omitted) (quoting Enron Oil Corp. v. Diakuhara, 10 F.3d 90, 96 (2d Cir. 1993)). "These criteria are: '(1) the willfulness of default, (2) the existence of any meritorious defenses, and (3) prejudice to the non-defaulting party.'" Id. (quoting Guggenheim Capital, LLC v. Birnbaum, 722 F.3d 444, 455 (2d Cir. 2013)). A motion to set aside a default is "addressed to the sound discretion of the district court." SEC v. McNulty, 137 F.3d 732, 738 (2d Cir. 1998).

         The Second Circuit has "expressed a strong 'preference for resolving disputes on the merits.'" New York v. Green, 420 F.3d 99, 104 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting Powerserve Int'l, Inc. v. Lavi, 239 F.3d 508, 514 (2d Cir. 2001)); see also 10 James W. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 55.81 (3d ed. 2015) ("Courts have traditionally disfavored default judgments."). "[A]n understandable zeal for a tidy, reduced calendar of cases should not overcome a court's duty to do justice in the particular case." Enron Oil Corp., 10 F.3d at 96. "Accordingly, in ruling on a motion to vacate a default judgment, all doubts must be resolved in favor of the party seeking relief from the judgment in order to ensure that to the extent possible, disputes are resolved on their merits." Green, 420 F.3d at 104.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to ...


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