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Higginbotham v. Red Roof Inns, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

April 17, 2019

STEVE HIGGINBOTHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
RED ROOF INNS, INC. Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THOMAS E. JOHNSTON, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Defendant's motion to vacate entry of default and to accept the filing of Defendant's Answer and Amended Answer on February 15, 2019 and February 20, 2019, respectively. (ECF No. 11.) For the reasons discussed more fully herein, the Court GRANTS the motion. (ECF No. 11.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of an employment dispute between Plaintiff Steve Higginbotham (“Higginbotham”) and his former employer Defendant Red Roof Inns, Inc. (“Red Roof”) regarding Higginbotham's termination. (See ECF No. 1 at 1.) Higginbotham filed the present action in this Court on December 5, 2018, alleging that Red Roof terminated his employment as retaliation for Higginbotham taking leave in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) and the West Virginia Human Rights Act (“WVHRA”). (See id.) Service was accepted on behalf of Red Roof by the Secretary of State, Red Roof's statutory attorney-in-fact. (ECF No. 4.)

         On February 13, 2019, Higginbotham filed a request for entry of default against Red Roof and attached an affidavit in support of that request. (ECF No. 5.) On February 15, 2019, the Clerk of this Court entered default against Red Roof pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(a). (ECF No. 7.) Red Roof filed the present Motion to Vacate Entry of Default on February 22, 2019. (ECF No. 11.) Higginbotham timely responded to the motion, (ECF No. 12), and Red Roof timely replied, (ECF No. 13). As such, the motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(a), when a party shows by affidavit that an opposing party has failed to plead or otherwise defend itself in litigation, the clerk of court must enter default against the opposing party. This Rule further provides, however, that district courts have the discretion to set aside an order of default “for good cause shown.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(c). The Fourth Circuit has “repeatedly expressed a strong preference that, as a general matter, defaults be avoided and that claims and defenses be disposed of on their merits.” Colleton Preparatory Acad., Inc. v. Hoover Universal, Inc., 616 F.3d 413, 417 (4th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         Courts should grant relief from a judgment of default “where the defaulting party acts with reasonable diligence in seeking to set aside the default and tenders a meritorious defense.” United States v. Moradi, 673 F.2d 725, 727 (4th Cir. 1982) (citations omitted). Beyond reasonable promptness and a meritorious defense, courts also consider “the personal responsibility of the defaulting party, the prejudice to the party, whether there is a history of dilatory action, and the availability of sanctions less drastic.” Payne v. Brake, 439 F.3d 198, 204-05 (4th Cir. 2006) (citations omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In evaluating Red Roof's motion, the Court must address the above relevant factors. “In weighing and evaluating these factors, the Court must consider the “extensive line of decisions that [hold] Rule [ ] 55(c) . . . [should] be liberally construed in order to provide relief from the onerous consequences of defaults and default judgments.” Hanson & Morgan Livestock, Inc. v. B4 Cattle Co., No. 5:07-cv-00330, 2007 WL 4305606, at *2 (S.D. W.Va. Dec. 7, 2007) (quoting Tolson v. Hodge, 411 F.2d 123, 130 (4th Cir.1969)). Thus, “any doubts about whether relief should be granted should be resolved in favor of setting aside the default so that the case may be heard on the merits.” Tolson, 411 F.2d at 130.

         A. Meritorious Defense

         “[A] ‘meritorious defense' is a presentation or proffer of evidence, which, if believed, would permit either the Court or the jury to find for the defaulting party.” Moradi, 673 F.2d at 727 (citing Cent. Operating Co. v. Util. Workers of Am., 491 F.2d 245, 252 n.8 (4th Cir. 1974)); see also Wainwright's Vacations, LLC v. Pan Am. Airways Corp., 130 F.Supp.2d 712, 718 (D. Md. 2001) (“[T]he moving party does not have to prove conclusively that he would prevail, only that there is sufficient evidence to permit a court to find in his favor.”). Even a tenuous defense weighs in favor of granting a motion to set aside the default. See Rasmussen v. Am. Nat. Red Cross, 155 F.R.D. 549, 552 (S.D. W.Va. 1994).

         As stated above, Higginbotham asserts claims against Red Roof for discrimination/retaliation for Red Roof allegedly terminating Higginbotham because Higginbotham took FMLA leave. (See ECF No. 1.) In its Amended Answer, Red Roof raises thirteen defenses to the Complaint, including failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and collateral estoppel. (See ECF No. 10 at 5-7.) Additionally, in support of its present motion, Red Roof provided evidence in support of its defense that it assert shows Higginbotham was not terminated for a retaliatory or discriminatory reason, but because Higginbotham allegedly failed to notify Red Roof he was taking FMLA leave after Red Roof had told him that he must do so. (See ECF No. 11 at 4-5; ECF No. 13 at 2.) If Red Roof proves any combination of these defenses, the jury could find in its favor. See e.g., Settle v. S.W. Rodger Co. Inc., No. 98-2312, 1999 WL 486643, at *4 (4th Cir. July 12, 1999) (“As to Settle's retaliation claim under the FMLA, Settle failed to show that he was terminated on account of any assumed availment of his FMLA rights.”). Thus, the Court finds that at this early stage in the litigation, Red Roof has adequately presented a meritorious defense that weighs in favor of setting aside the default.

         B. Reasona ...


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