United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
Joseph Aruanno brings this action against former Corrections
Officer Corey Caldwell for use of excessive force in
violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This matter comes before
the Court on Defendant's motion to vacate the default
judgment pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 55(c)
and 60(b)(4). For the reasons set forth below,
Defendant's motion is GRANTED.
April 30, 2015, this Court entered a $5, 000.00 default
judgment (the “Judgment”) in favor of Plaintiff
and against Defendant for use of excessive force. ECF No. 45.
Defendant now moves the Court to vacate the Judgment,
claiming that he was never served with Plaintiff's
complaint. See Certification of M. Vomacka in Supp.
of Mot. (“Vomacka Cert.”) ¶¶ 4, 37-38,
ECF No. 78-1; Certification of C. Caldwell in Supp. of Mot.
(“Caldwell Cert.”) ¶¶ 4-5, ECF No.
78-2. Defendant argues that the Judgement should be vacated
because it is void as a matter of law. See Vomacka
Cert. ¶¶ 37-38. Defendant further argues that good
cause exists to vacate the Judgment under Rule 55(c) because
Defendant immediately sought representation upon first
learning of the matter in an effort to raise meritorious
defenses thereto. See id. ¶¶ 39-49.
opposes, arguing that Defendant's motion is barred
because an error in the Clerk of Court's docketing system
is properly construed as a clerical mistake under Rules
60(b)(1) and (c)(1), and such errors must be raised within
one year of entry of a judgment or order. See Mem.
of Law in Supp. of Opp'n to Def.'s Mot.
(“Pl.'s Opp'n”) 2-3, ECF No. 80.
Plaintiff claims that “the United States Marshals
submitted a signed USM-285 Form detailing that Defendant was
served with [Plaintiff's] amended complaint on 12/12/2014
at 13:18 p.m.” Id.
responds, arguing that a judgment is void when there has been
no proper service and his motion, therefore, falls under Rule
60(b)(4). Furthermore, the one-year time limit does not apply
to Rule 60(b)(4) and Defendant moved within a reasonable
amount of time upon learning of the Judgment. See
Reply Br. to Opp'n to Mot. (“Def.'s
Reply”) 2-3, ECF No. 81. Defendant further argues that
the record supports his position because the returned summons
fails to indicate that he was served. See id. at
Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) provides, in pertinent part:
“On motion and just terms, the court may relieve a
party or its legal representative from a final judgment,
order, or proceeding for the following reasons: (1) mistake,
inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; . . . (4) the
judgment is void; . . . or (6) any other reason that
justifies relief.” Rule 60(c)(1) provides: “A
motion under Rule 60(b) must be made within a reasonable
time-and for reasons (1), (2), and (3) no more than a year
after the entry of judgment or order or the date of the
proceeding.” “The general purpose of Rule 60 . .
. is to strike a proper balance between the conflicting
principles that litigation must be brought to an end and that
justice must be done.” Boughner v. Sec'y of
Health, Educ. & Welfare, U.S., 572 F.2d 976, 977
(3rd Cir. 1978). “This Court has also cautioned that
relief from a judgment under Rule 60 should be granted only
in exceptional circumstances.” Id.
Nonetheless, “[a]ny doubt should be resolved in favor
of the petition to set aside the [default] judgment so that
cases may be decided on their merits.” See Tozer v.
Charles A. Krause Milling Co., 189 F.2d 242, 245 (3d
Cir. 1951). “Since the interests of justice are best
served by a trial on the merits, only after a careful study
of all relevant considerations should courts refuse to open
default judgments.” Id.
preliminary matter, the Court notes that the instant case was
stayed pursuant to the Court's order issued on September
28, 2017, pending the outcome of Defendant's bankruptcy
proceeding. See ECF No. 72. The Judgment, however,
necessarily impacts Defendant's bankruptcy proceeding
because Plaintiff is a creditor thereto. The Court,
therefore, temporarily lifts the stay to consider whether the
Judgment is void due to the absence of service.
default judgment entered when there has been no proper
service of the complaint is, a fortiori, void, and
should be set aside.” Gold Kist, Inc. v. Laurinburg
Oil Co., Inc., 756 F.2d 14, 19 (3d Cir. 1985) (citing
Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(4)). Defendant argues that the Judgment is
void because he was not properly served. The Court,
therefore, finds that Rule 60(b)(4) applies and
Defendant's motion is not barred by the one-year
limitation that applies to Rule 60(b)(1). The Court further
finds that Defendant moved to vacate within a reasonable
amount of time because he sought representation from counsel
immediately upon learning of the Judgment and counsel moved
expediently thereafter, filing the instant motion one day
after undertaking the representation of Defendant.
See Vomacka Cert. ¶ 33; Caldwell Cert.
¶¶ 8-12; see also United States v. One Toshiba
Color Television, 213 F.3d 147, 157 (3d Cir. 2000)
(“[N]o passage of time can transmute a nullity into a
binding judgment, and hence there is no time limit for such a
only remaining question before the Court is whether the
record indicates that Defendant was properly served. The
record reflects that the U.S. Marshals had difficulty in
executing service upon Defendant. The Marshals first
attempted unsuccessfully to serve Defendant on June 4, 2012,
learning that Defendant no longer worked at the Department of
Corrections. See ECF No. 22. On November 3, 2014, in
response to the Court's previous order, the Marshals
filed a report, detailing unsuccessful efforts to obtain
Defendant's address and serve him. See ECF No.
on February 3, 2015, a summons was filed that, according to
Plaintiff, indicates successful service of Defendant on
December 12, 2014, at 1:18 p.m. See ECF No. 39. The
Court does not find that the summons so indicates. Upon
further scrutiny, the Court notes that the summons is
incomplete. First, Defendant's address is not recorded
anywhere on the document. Second, the serving Marshal
recorded date, time and signature, but failed to confirm
whether Defendant was or was not served. Given the
aforementioned difficulties, the absence of such confirmation
calls into great doubt whether Defendant was, in fact,
properly served. In the light of the Third Circuit's
preference for decisions on the merits, the Court finds that
such doubt favors setting aside the default and vacating the
Judgment to afford Defendant an opportunity to defend himself
against Plaintiff's allegations. See Tover, 189
F.2d at 245 (“Any doubt should be resolved in favor of
the petition to set aside the [default] judgment so that
cases may be decided on their merits.”). Accordingly,
Defendant's motion is GRANTED.