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Adams v. Smith

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

March 3, 2014

BYRON E. ADAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
V SMITH, et al., Defendants.

ORDER

PHILIP M. FRAZIER, Magistrate Judge.

Before the court is Defendant Warden's (Doc. 58) motion to vacate default. For the following reasons, the (Doc. 58) motion to vacate default is granted, in part, and denied, in part.

A. Background

Plaintiff filed this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on September 16, 2013. After its transfer to this district eight days later, the court screened the complaint pursuant to its authority in 28 U.S.C. § 1915A on October 18, 2013. See Doc. 11. In that order, Defendant Warden was ordered to file a reply "pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(g)." Id. at 5-6. A request for waiver of service was sent to Warden on October 21 but never returned as executed. See Docs. 12, 35. The court then issued summons on January 9, 2014 ( see Doc. 36), which was served on January 24 ( see Doc. 40). Warden's reply was due on February 14. See id. No reply was filed by that date so the court granted Plaintiff's motion for entry of default pursuant to Rule 55(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on February 21. See Docs. 52, 55.

On February 24, Warden filed the instant motion to vacate default pursuant to Rule 55(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He advances two arguments for why default should be vacated: 1) the court does not have authority to enter default in prisoner cases, and 2) if the court does have such authority, good cause is demonstrated to vacate the default pursuant to Rule 55(c).

B. Court Authority to Enter Default in Prisoner Cases

Warden cites the text of the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") for support of his argument that "the Court does not have the usual ability to enter default judgment against a defendant for failing to timely file a responsive pleading in prisoner litigation cases." Doc. 58 at 4 ¶14. The provisions in question provide as follows:

(g) Waiver of reply
(1) Any defendant may waive the right to reply to any action brought by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility under section 1983 of this title or any other Federal law. Notwithstanding any other law or rule of procedure, such waiver shall not constitute an admission of the allegations contained in the complaint. No relief shall be granted to the plaintiff unless a reply has been filed.
(2) The court may require any defendant to reply to a complaint brought under this section if it finds that the plaintiff has a reasonable opportunity to prevail on the merits.

42 U.S.C. § 1997e(g) (emphasis added). Warden then correctly points out that § 1997e(g)(1) was intended to be a departure for the customary beginning to a federal lawsuit. He then cites to a portion of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Jones v. Bock, 49 U.S. 199, 127 S.Ct. 910, 166 L.Ed.2d 798 (2007), which provides as follows:

[Initial screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A] may take place before any responsive pleading is filed-unlike in the typical civil case, defendants do not have to respond to a complaint covered by the PLRA until required to do so by the court, and waiving the right to reply does not constitute an admission of the allegations in the complaint. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1997e(g)(1), (2).

Jones, 549 U.S. at 213-14. Based on this passage, Warden concludes that the court "does not have the usual ability to enter default judgment against a defendant for failing to timely file [a reply]" (Doc. 58 at 4 ¶ 14) in any prisoner case covered by the PLRA because the provision of § 1997e(g)(1) that "[n]o relief shall be granted to the plaintiff unless a reply has been filed" cannot be negated (Doc. 58 at 4 ¶ 13).

Warden's argument, however, is based on an illogical reading of § 1997e(g) and Jones, which lead to absurd results if fully extended. When the statute's plain language is clear, "the sole function of the courts-at least where the disposition required by the text is not absurd-is to enforce it according to its terms." Lamie v. U.S. Tr., 540 U.S. 526, 534, 124 S.Ct. 1023, 1030, 157 L.Ed.2d 1024 (2004). "No rule of construction necessitates our acceptance of an interpretation ...


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