Law School Case Brief
Coleman v. Frierson - 607 F. Supp. 1566 (N.D. Ill. 1985)
Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(2) provides that a defense of failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted may be made in any pleading or by motion for judgment on the pleadings, or at trial on the merits. The clear thrust of the rule is that a failure to state a claim may be raised at any time before a disposition on the merits but not after. Any other construction would not only add to intolerable delay, but create uncertainty as to the validity of a final judgment on the merits.
Samuel Coleman was a veteran police officer, who uncovered corruption in the police department and revealed the former mayor's involvement in the alleged wrongdoing. After he was terminated from his job, Coleman filed a claim against defendants, city, former mayor, and former police chief, alleging constitutional violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. The court entered a default judgment against defendants on liability because they repeatedly failed to meet the requisite obligations to carry the litigation forward. Following a trial on the issue of damages, the jury returned a verdict against defendants for compensatory and punitive damages, lost wages, medical, and legal expenses. Defendants then sought a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial. The former mayor and police chief asked the court to vacate the liability phase of the default judgment.
Did the entry of a default judgment as a sanction preclude evidence of affirmative defenses?
The court denied all defendants' motions and held that: (1) defendants had not been diligent or conscientious clients to justify the extraordinary case relief available under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(6); and (2) defendants' argument for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for new trial were not timely raised. In both legal and practical contemplation a default judgment is the equivalent of a trial on the merits. That makes all the foregoing reasoning fully applicable here. Between the time Coleman filed the Complaint and the time the default judgment was entered nearly a year and a half elapsed, affording defendants ample time to have raised the arguments they only now put forward. If defendants could not with reasonable diligence have discovered the factual predicate for those arguments, the principles embodied in Rule 60(b) might perhaps compel a different analysis. But in the absence of such a showing -- and defendants have made none -- the default judgment as to liability must be seen as the analogue of a judgment on the merits. Its entry foreclosed arguments challenging the sufficiency of Coleman's claim for relief. Any other result would effectively allow defendants the opportunity now to press arguments they wholly neglected to advance, for no excusable reason, when they should have.
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