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Line v. TJM International Limited Liability Co.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 3, 2019

MAERSK LINE, Plaintiff,
v.
TJM INTERNATIONAL LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY, MARSH AND ASSOCIATES SIGNING SERVICES, LLC, and CHERYL MARSH, Defendants.

          RICK A. STEINBERG PRICE MEESE SHULMAN & D'ARMINO, P.C. Attorney for Maersk Line.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This is a breach of contract action concerning Plaintiff's transport of cargo for the benefit of Defendants from 2012-2015. Presently before this Court is Plaintiff's Amended Motion for Default Judgment against Defendants TJM International Limited Liability Company (“TJM International”) and Marsh and Associates Signing Services, LLC (“Marsh and Associates, ” and collectively with TJM International, “Entity Defendants”). Entity Defendants have not opposed this motion. For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiff's Amended Motion for Default Judgment will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         This Court takes its facts from Plaintiff's Complaint. According to the complaint, Plaintiff is a common carrier by water in interstate and foreign commerce as defined by the Shipping Act, and was such a common carrier when it performed services for Defendants. Entity Defendants are limited liability companies formed in and citizens of New Jersey.[1]

         Plaintiff alleges it fully performed transportation services for Defendants pursuant to written contracts of carriage between Plaintiff and Defendants, except those obligations, if any, which Plaintiff was excused from performing. Plaintiff demanded Defendants pay the amount due under the contracts, but Defendants have refused to pay. Plaintiff alleges that TJM International and Marsh and Associates are the agent or alter ego of each other. Entity Defendants are “Merchants” as defined by the terms and conditions of Plaintiff's bills of lading. Plaintiff pleads the following counts: (1) for money due under tariff or service contracts per the Shipping Act, (2) breach of contract, (3) unjust enrichment, (4) quantum meruit, (5) account stated, and (6) attorney's fees. Plaintiff alleges Defendants are liable for the payment of invoiced amounts, interest due on outstanding and overdue sums, and reasonable attorney's fees and expenses incurred in collecting any sums due. Plaintiff alleges the services received by Defendants equals $62, 437.50.[2]

         Plaintiff filed its complaint on July 16, 2018, and it was served on Defendants on July 19, 2018. Defendants, as of the date of this Opinion, have failed to appear in this action. The Clerk entered default on September 6, 2018 against Entity Defendants. On November 8, 2018, Plaintiff filed its Motion for Default Judgment against Entity Defendants. On April 18, 2019, this Court denied, without prejudice, Plaintiff's Motion for Default Judgment for failing to specify the claims and elements constituting the basis of the request for default judgment and for failing to file documents evidencing the contractual relationship between the parties and the value of the services provided. Plaintiff filed its Amended Motion for Default Judgment against Entity Defendants on May 15, 2019. Entity Defendants have not responded within the time specified; thus, this motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         This Court possesses jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1333, and 1367. Plaintiff asserts a claim under a federal statute, the Shipping Act, 46 U.S.C. § 41102. Subject matter jurisdiction also lies in Admiralty.

         B. Personal Jurisdiction

         In addition to subject matter jurisdiction, this Court must also be satisfied it possesses personal jurisdiction over Defendants. See U.S. Life Ins. Co. v. Romash, No. 09-3510 (GEB), 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57276, at *3-4 (D.N.J. June 9, 2010) (“Before entering default judgment, the court must address the threshold issue of whether it has subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over the parties.” (citing Williams v. Life Sav. & Loan, 802 F.2d 1200, 1203 (10th Cir. 1986))).

         It appears this Court possesses personal jurisdiction over Entity Defendants. Plaintiff alleges Entity Defendants are citizens of New Jersey. This Court is satisfied personal jurisdiction over Entity Defendants exists in this case on the basis of general jurisdiction.[3]

         C. Default

         The first step in obtaining a default judgment is the entry of default. “When a party against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead or otherwise defend, and that failure is shown by affidavit or otherwise, the Clerk must enter the party's default.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a). The Clerk entered default against Entity Defendants on September 6, 2018.

         D. Default Judgment

         “Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(b)(2) authorizes courts to enter a default judgment against a properly served defendant who fails to a file a timely responsive pleading.” Chanel v. Gordashevsky, 558 F.Supp.2d 532, 535 (D.N.J. 2008) (citing Anchorage Assocs. v. Virgin Is. Bd. of Tax Rev., 922 F.2d 168, 177 n.9 (3d Cir. 1990)). But a party seeking default judgment “is not entitled to a default judgment as of a right.” Franklin v. Nat'l Mar. Union of Am., No. 91-480, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9819, at *3-4 (D.N.J. 1991) (quoting 10 Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2685 (1983)), aff'd, 972 F.2d 1331 (3d Cir. 1992). The decision to enter a default judgment is “left primarily to the discretion of the district court.” Hritz v. Woma Corp., 732 F.2d 1178, 1180 (3d Cir. 1984).

         Although every “well-pled allegation” of the complaint, except those relating to damages, are deemed admitted, Comdyne I. Inc. v. Corbin, 908 F.2d 1142, 1149 (3d Cir. 1990), before entering a default judgment the Court must decide whether “the unchallenged facts constitute a legitimate cause of action, since a party in default does not admit mere conclusions of law, ” Chanel, 558 F.Supp.2d at 535 (citing Directv, Inc. v. Asher, No. 03-1969, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14027, at *3 (D.N.J. Mar. 14, 2006)). “Three factors control whether a default judgment should be granted: (1) prejudice to the plaintiff if default is denied, (2) whether the defendant appears to have a litigable defense, and (3) whether defendant's delay is due to culpable conduct.” Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 164 (3d Cir. 2000); United States v. $55, 518.05 in U.S. Currency, 728 F.2d 192, 195 (3d Ci. 1984). If a review of the complaint demonstrates a valid cause of action, the Court must then determine whether the plaintiff is entitled to default judgment.

         a. Whether Plaintiff has Stated a Cause of Action

         As discussed supra, Plaintiff has asserted six counts. This Court will determine whether each claim asserted by Plaintiff properly states a cause of action.

         i. Violation of the Shipping Act

         The Shipping Act contains an implied private cause of action to collect fees owed pursuant to published tariffs. Sea-Land Serv., Inc. v. Murrey & Son's Co. Inc., 824 F.2d 740, 744 (9th Cir. 1987). To establish a prima facie case under the Shipping Act, a plaintiff must establish a defendant obtained transportation at less than applicable rates. 46 U.S.C. § 41102. A plaintiff must show a defendant “[(1)] knowingly and willfully, [(2)] directly or indirectly, [(3)] by means of false billing, false classification, false weighing, false report of weight, false measurement, or any other unjust or unfair device or means, [(4)] obtain[s] or attempt[s] to obtain ocean transportation for property at less than the rates or charges that would otherwise apply.” Id.

         Here, Plaintiff's Complaint alleges Entity Defendants knowingly and willfully failed and refused to pay Plaintiff the full amount due. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 8.) Because Plaintiff alleges Entity Defendants knowingly and willfully refused to pay, the first element is satisfied. Plaintiff alleges that it demanded Entity Defendants pay the full amount due and argues Entity Defendants directly failed to do so. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 7.) Because Plaintiff argues Entity Defendants directly failed to pay the amount due, the second element is met. Plaintiff's Complaint alleges Entity Defendants used unjust means to avoid payment of invoices through the use of TJM International and Marsh and Associates as agents or alter egos of each other. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 3.)

         Plaintiff provides bills of lading, export invoices, and detention invoices that use TJM International and Marsh and Associates with the same billing address; New Jersey Business Entity Information and Records Service that assert Cheryl Marsh is the “Agent” of both TJM International and Marsh and Associates with the same address, 621 Beverly Rancocas Road, Ste. 114, Willingboro, N.J. 08046; and an email signature and a website page that uses TJM International and Marsh and Associates interchangeably. (Pl.'s Amended Mot. for Default J., Ex. B, G, H, & I.) Because Plaintiff alleges Entity Defendants used unjust means to avoid payment, the third element is ...


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