United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
J. HAZEL United States District Judge.
before the Court is a Motion for Default Judgment. ECF No. 7.
tiled by Plaintiff. the United States of America ("the
Government") against Defendant, $12, 735.53 in U.S.
Currency ("the Defendant Currency"), in this civil
forfeiture in rem action. A hearing on this motion is
not necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For
the reasons that follow. Plaintiffs Motion for Default
Judgment is granted.
April 9. 2015. the Defendant Currency was seized by federal
investigators from a Bank of America bank account. ECF No.
1-1 at ¶ 37. The bank account had been opened by
Olakunle Moruf Olukunga on May 8. 2013 at a Greenbelt.
Maryland branch of the bank. FCF No. 1-1 at ¶¶ 14.
37. The Government asserts that the Defendant Currency
constitutes the proceeds of a wire fraud and money laundering
scheme, and is thus subject to forfeiture pursuant to 18
U.S.C. § 981. ECF No. 1 ¶ 5; see also ECF
No. 1-1 ¶ 44. The scheme allegedly involved multiple
victims across the United States beginning in or around late
2014 and continuing through 2015. ECF No. 1-1. The victims
were convinced to deposit and cash counterfeit checks or
deposit money from their own personal accounts into various
specified accounts as part of online employment and dating
bank account at issue allegedly received the proceeds from an
online dating scam involving victim B.C. Id. ¶
37. Gerald Kinscr ("Kinser") contacted B.C. on
Match.com in November 2014, indicating that he was
interested in a relationship with B.C. Id. ¶
7-8. From November 2014 through January 2015. Kinser
requested money from B.C., claiming he was in trouble and
having money problems while in Malaysia. Id. ¶
8. Following Kinser's instructions. B.C. transferred
money to various pre-designated accounts during that time
period. Id. ¶¶ 9. 14. One of those
transfers occurred on January 20. 2015. when B.C. deposited
$4, 000 from a personal checking account into the Bank of
America bank account opened by Olukunga. Id.
B.C.'s transactions were also linked to four other
victims, who were similarly convinced to cash and deposit
counterfeit checks or deposit money from their own personal
accounts into other specified accounts. Id. ¶
37. Bank records from Olukunga's account also show two
counter credit cash deposits of $5, 000 and $5, 500 in
January and February 2015. which the Government alleges are
similar to transactions conducted by other victims.
28. 2015. Detective Hebding of the Baltimore County Police
Department's Financial and Cyber Crime
Unit. received a copy of a forfeiture petition
filed by Olukunga regarding the seizure of Defendant Currency
from his bank account. Id. ¶ 39. In the
petition. Olukunga claimed to have no involvement with the
fraudulent activity linked to his account. Id.
Instead. Olukunga claimed that the Defendant Currency was the
result of three legitimate transfers from the
Bureau-de-change Operator in Nigeria into his account,
Id. ¶ 40. Olukunga stated that he had given his
Bank of America account number to a colleague so that the
colleague could transfer funds from the Bureau-de-change
Operator in Nigeria to the United States to pay for medical
expenses for his wife. Id. ¶ 40.
Hebding investigated these claims and found that none of the
referenced bank transfers originated from the
Bureau-de-change Operator in Nigeria as Olukunga alleged.
Id. ¶ 41-44. Detective Hebding determined that
the first transaction was a transfer from the personal
checking account of victim B.C. Id. ¶ 42.
Further investigation revealed that the second and third
transactions were not transfers from the Bureau-de-change
Operator in Nigeria either: instead, they were out-of-state
counter deposits of cash. Id. ¶ 43.
November 13. 201 5. the Government filed a verified complaint
seeking forfeiture of the Defendant Currency pursuant to 18
U.S.C. § 981. ECF No. 1. A copy of the complaint was
sent to Olukunga on December 8, 2015. along with instructions
for filing a claim. ECF No. 4-2. Notice of the case was also
posted on an official government website
(www.forfeiture.gov). for at least thirty
consecutive days, beginning on December 9. 201 5. ECF No.
4-3. On February 12. 2016, the Government moved for
Clerk's Entry of Default. Id. The Clerk entered
Default Judgment as to the Defendant Currency on March 4.
2016. ECF No. 6. and the Government subsequently filed the
pending Motion for Default Judgment, ECF No. 7. on March 29.
matter is governed jointly by Rule 55(b) of the Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure. which concerns Motions for Default
Judgment generally, and Supplemental Rule G of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure, which concerns forfeiture actions
in rem specifically. See United Slates
v. One 2003 Mercedes Ben: CL500. No. PWG-11-3571. 2013
WL 371 3903. at *2-3(D. Md. July 15.2013).
defendant's default does not automatically entitle the
plaintiff to entry of a default judgment: rather, that
decision is left to the discretion of the court."
Choice Hotels Intern., Inc. v. Savannah Shakti
Carp.. No. DKC-11-0438. 2011 WL 5118328 at * 2 (D. Md.
Oct. 25. 2011) (citing Dow v. Jones. 232 F.Supp.2d
491. 494 (D. Md. 2002)). Although "[t]he Fourth Circuit
has a 'strong policy" that 'cases be decided on
their merits."" id. (citing United
States v. Shaffer Equip. Co.. 11 F.3d 450. 453 (4th
Cir.1993)). "default judgment may be appropriate when
the adversary process has been halted because of an
essentially unresponsive party [.]" Id. (citing
S.E.C v. Lawbaugh, 359 F.Supp.2d 418. 421 (D. Md.
2005)). "Upon default, the well-pled allegations in a
complaint as to liability are taken as true, although the
allegations as to damages are not." S.E.C. v.
Lawbaugh. 359 F.Supp.2d 418, 422 (D. Md. 2005). When
considering a Motion for Default Judgment, the Court
"must [then] determine whether [those] allegations ...
support the relief sought in th[e] action/' hit 1
Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund v. Capita!
Restoration & Painting Co.. 919 F.Supp.2d 680. 685
(D. Md. 201 3) (citation and internal quotation marks
Rule G of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure lays out the
pleading and notice requirements of a civil forfeiture in
rem proceeding arising from a federal statute. See
Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. G. To initiate a civil forfeiture case,
the Government must submit a verified complaint that states
the Court's jurisdiction over the property, including the
statute under which forfeiture is sought; describes the
property and its location with reasonable particularity: and
states "sufficiently detailed facts to support a
reasonable belief that the government will be able to meet
its burden of proof at trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. G(2).
In a civil forfeiture case, "the burden of proof is on
the Government to establish, by a preponderance of the
evidence, that the property is subject to forfeiture."
18 U.S.C § 983(c). If, as is the case here, the
Government's theory of forfeiture is that the property
was "used to commit or facilitate the commission of a
criminal offense, or was involved in the commission of a
criminal offense." the Government must establish that
there was "a substantial connection between the property
and the offense." Id. However, "ft]he
hurdle imposed by the substantial connection requirement is
not... a particularly high one." United Stales v.
One 2003 Mercedes Bern CLSOO, No. PWG-11-3571, 2013 WL
3713903. at *4 (D. Md. July 15. 2013)(internal quotation and
to the notice requirements, a judgment of forfeiture
"may be entered only if the government has published
notice of the action within a reasonable time after filing
the complaint or at a time the court orders."
Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. G(4)(a)(i). The Government is required to
provide notice of the forfeiture proceedings both to the
public generally, and directly to any-known potential
claimants. Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. G(4). Therefore, default
judgment is appropriate in this case if the Government has
complied with the notice requirements of Supplemental Rule
G(4) and has shown, by a preponderance of the evidence, a
"substantial connection" between the Defendant
Currency and the alleged wire fraud and money laundering
scheme. See United States v. One 2003 Mercedes Benz
CLSQO, No. PWG-11-3571. 2013 WL 3713903, at *4 (D. Md.
July 15. 2013).
the Government has met the notice requirements of
Supplemental Rule G(4) by sending a copy of the verified
complaint to Olukunga. the only known potential claimant. ECF
No. 4-2; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. G(4)(b)(i).
The Government also notified the general public by posting
notice of this case on an official government internet site
for more than 30 days. ECF No. 4-3: see also Fed. R.
Civ. P. Supp. G(4)(a)(iii). The notice included the amount of
currency at issue, the bank account number, the name of the
bank account ...