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Scott N. Johnson v. Beahm

November 7, 2011

SCOTT N. JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BEAHM, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



ORDER AND FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS

Pending before the court is plaintiff's motion for default judgment against defendants William J. Beahm and F. Greer Adkins-Beahm, individually and as Trustees of the Beahm Living Trust, the holders of the Grant Deed for property located at 1141 Bell Street, Sacramento, California, upon which sits the Bell Oaks Apartments, the apartment complex at issue here. On August 18, 2011, the undersigned issued findings and recommendations recommending that plaintiff's motion for default judgment be denied. Plaintiff filed timely objections. Upon review of those objections, the court will vacate its findings and recommendations and issue new findings and recommendations as set forth infra.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff initiated this action on January 31, 2011, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq., and the California Unruh Civil Rights Act. A certificate of service filed April 20, 2011 demonstrates that the summons and complaint were served on defendants on March 27, 2011 by leaving a copy of the process with a male occupant at 90 Dapplegray Lane, Rolling Hills, CA.*fn1

On May 25, 2011, pursuant to plaintiff's request, the Clerk of Court entered the default of defendants. On July 13, 2011, plaintiff filed a motion for default judgment, and served a copy of the motion by mail on the defendants.

On August 18, 2011, the court issued findings and recommendations recommending that the motion for default judgment be denied after the undersigned construed plaintiff's complaint as referring to the residential portions of the apartment complex, which are not subject to the ADA. In his objections filed September 1, 2011, plaintiff clarifies that his complaint is focused on the leasing office of the apartment complex and, as such, is subject to the ADA. Upon consideration of the objections, the August 18, 2011 findings and recommendations will be vacated.

DISCUSSION

It is within the sound discretion of the district court to grant or deny an application for default judgment. Aldabe v. Aldabe, 616 F.2d 1089, 1092 (9th Cir. 1980). In making this determination, the court considers the following factors:

(1) the possibility of prejudice to the plaintiff, (2) the merits of plaintiff's substantive claim, (3) the sufficiency of the complaint, (4) the sum of money at stake in the action, (5) the possibility of a dispute concerning the material facts, (6) whether the default was due to excusable neglect, and (7) the strong policy underlying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure favoring decisions on the merits. Eitel v. McCool, 782 F.2d 1470, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1986). "In applying this discretionary standard, default judgments are more often granted than denied." Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Castworld Products, Inc., 219 F.R.D. 494, 498 (C.D. Cal. 2003) (quoting PepsiCo, Inc. v. Triunfo-Mex, Inc., 189 F.R.D. 431, 432 (C.D. Cal. 1999)).

As a general rule, once default is entered, the factual allegations of the complaint are taken as true, except for those allegations relating to damages. Tele Video Systems, Inc. v. Heidenthal, 826 F.2d 915, 917-18 (9th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted). However, although well-pleaded allegations in the complaint are admitted by defendant's failure to respond, "necessary facts not contained in the pleadings, and claims which are legally insufficient, are not established by default." Cripps v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 980 F.2d 1261, 1267 (9th Cir. 1992).

A. The Americans with Disabilities Act

Title III of the ADA provides that "[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation." 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). Discrimination includes "a failure to remove architectural barriers ... in existing facilities ... where such removal is readily achievable ." Id. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(iv). Under the ADA, the term readily achievable means "easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense." 42 U.S.C. § 12181(9).

"To prevail on a Title III discrimination claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) [he] is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) the defendant is a private entity that owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation; and (3) the plaintiff was denied public accommodations by the defendant because of her disability." Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 730 (9th Cir. 2007). Further, "[t]o succeed on a ADA claim of discrimination on account of one's disability due to an architectural barrier, the plaintiff must also prove that: (1) the existing facility at the defendant's place of business presents an architectural barrier prohibited under the ADA, and (2) the removal of the barrier is readily achievable." Parr v. L & L Drive-Inn Rest., 96 F. Supp. 2d 1065, 1085 (D. Haw. 2000).

Although "[t]he Ninth Circuit has yet to rule on whether the plaintiff or defendant bears the burden of proof in showing that removal of an architectural barrier is readily achievable," the Circuit, and various district courts throughout the Circuit, have often applied the burden-shifting framework set forth in Colorado Cross Disability Coalition v. Hermanson Family, Ltd., 264 F.3d 999 (10th Cir. 2001); Vesecky v. Garick, Inc., 2008 WL 4446714, at *2 (D. Ariz. Sept.30, 2008) (citing Doran v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 506 F.3d 1191, 1202 (9th Cir. 2007) and various district court cases). In Colorado Cross, the Tenth Circuit stated that the "[p]laintiff bears the initial burden of production to present evidence that a suggested method of barrier removal is readily achievable" and that if plaintiff meets that burden, the burden shifts to the defendant, who "bears the ultimate burden of persuasion regarding its affirmative defense that a suggested method of barrier removal is not readily achievable." Colo. Cross Disability Coal., 264 F.3d at 1006.

Recently, in Molski v. Foley Estates Vineyard and Winery, LLC, 531 F.3d 1043 (9th Cir. 2008), the Circuit addressed Colorado Cross directly for the first time. The court declined to apply Colorado Cross's burden-shifting framework in the context of barrier removal from within historic buildings and instead placed the burden squarely on the defendant. The court reasoned that by requiring "the entity undertaking alterations [to] consult with the State Historic Preservation Officer," the ADA guidelines for historic buildings place the burden on the "party with the best access ...


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