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Vazquez-Robles v. CommoLoCo, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 27, 2014

MARIBEL VÁZQUEZ-ROBLES, Plaintiff, Appellee,
v.
COMMOLOCO, INC., Defendant, Appellant

As Amended July 9, 2014.

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. Francisco A. Besosa, U.S. District Judge.

Thomas H. Hefferon, with whom John B. Daukas, Sarah K. Frederick, Justin M. Kahler, and Goodwin Procter LLP were on brief, for appellant.

Alejandro Bellver Espinosa, with whom Bellver Espinosa Law Firm was on brief, for appellee.

Before Thompson and Selya, Circuit Judges, and McConnell,[*] District Judge.

OPINION

Page 2

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

No principle is more firmly embedded in American jurisprudence than this one: when a claim is proffered that threatens a person's life, liberty, or property, that person is entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard before a court awards any substantial relief. See Mullane v. Cent. Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314, 70 S.Ct. 652, 94 L.Ed. 865 (1950). In federal court practice, this due process guarantee is facilitated by Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure -- a rule regulating service of process. Absent waiver or consent, a judgment that is rendered without lawful service of process is null and void. See Precision Etchings & Findings, Inc. v. LGP Gem, Ltd., 953 F.2d 21, 23 (1st Cir. 1992). So it is here.

I. BACKGROUND

On July 26, 2012, plaintiff-appellee Maribel Vázquez-Robles commenced a civil action

Page 3

in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico against her former employer, defendant-appellant CommoLoCo, Inc. Her complaint alleged workplace discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § § 12101-12213; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, id. § § 2000e to 2000e-17; and local law. On August 1, the plaintiff attempted to serve the summons and complaint by serving Prentice-Hall Corporation System Puerto Rico, Inc. (Prentice), which she believed to be the defendant's registered agent for service of process in Puerto Rico. The defendant denies that Prentice was its registered agent at the time, and there is no evidence that Prentice ever forwarded the papers to the defendant.

When no answer was filed, the plaintiff moved for, and on September 5 obtained, an entry of default. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a). The district court later empaneled a jury to liquidate the defaulted claims; and the jury -- again without any notice to or appearance by the defendant -- awarded the plaintiff $935,000 in damages.

In March of 2013, the plaintiff procured a writ of execution. With that writ in hand, a Deputy United States Marshal seized funds equal to the full amount of the judgment from the defendant's bank account. The seizure of nearly one million dollars got the defendant's attention: it immediately moved to vacate the judgment as void, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(4), maintaining that it had no prior knowledge of the action. The plaintiff opposed the motion and, on March 25, the district court denied it. See Vazquez-Robles v. CommoLoCo, Inc., 932 F.Supp.2d 259, 260 (D.P.R. 2013).

On the same day, the defendant moved for reconsideration, proffering additional documents. The district court rejected this motion in an unpublished order. This timely appeal ensued.

II. ANALYSIS

There is a threshold matter, which can swiftly be dispatched. The plaintiff insists that the defendant submitted itself to the jurisdiction of the district court by filing a notice of appeal without an explicit ...


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