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Huynh v. Massenya

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

November 13, 2017

JAMES HUYNH, Plaintiff,
KODZO MASSENYA, et al., Defendants.


          GEORGE J. HAZEL United States District Judge

         Plaintiff James Huynh brought this action against the Gabonese Republic ("Gabon") and three individuals, Kodzo "Michael" Massenya, Charles Mbonke, and Jean LeGrand, for conversion, fraud, and civil conspiracy. ECF No. 1. Since then, this Court dismissed Gabon as a defendant, ECF No. 36 ¶ 2, and Huynh voluntarily dismissed Mbonke and LeGrand as defendants, ECF No. 37. Presently pending before the Court is Plaintiffs Motion for Default Judgment against Defendant Massenya. ECF No. 39. No hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the following reasons, the Motion for Default Judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         The Court laid out the facts of this case in its May 30, 2017 Memorandum Opinion, ECF No. 33, but restates the relevant facts here. Huynh is a Virginia resident and at all times relevant to the action owned approximately four acres of land in Fairfax, Virginia. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 1, 8. Huynh was working at a Jaguar and Land Rover/Range Rover car dealership in Rockville, Maryland in January 2010, when he met Defendant Jean LeGrand. Id. ¶ 10. LeGrand visited the Jaguar dealership approximately fifteen times between January 2010 and October 2010, purchasing two vehicles during that time. Id. ¶¶ 10-11. In August 2010, Huynh also met Defendant Kodzo Massenya when Massenya visited the dealership. Id. ¶ 12. To the best of Plaintiffs knowledge and belief, Massenya is a resident of the United Kingdom. Id. ¶ 4. Massenya that he was wealthy and expressed interest in Huynh's Fairfax land. Id. ¶ 13. Massenya told Huynh that he knew someone from Gabon -- the son of the late President of Gabon, in particular who would be interested in purchasing Huynh's land. Id. ¶ 14. On or about January 3, 2011, Massenya introduced Huynh to Defendant Charles Mbonke at the Bethesda Marriott Suites in Bethesda, Maryland. Id. ¶ 15. To the best of Plaintiff s knowledge and belief, Mbonke is a resident of Gabon and/or France. Id. ¶5. Mbonke introduced himself to Huynh as the son of the late Gabonese President, Omar Bongo Ondimba. Id. ¶ 16. According to Plaintiff, Mbonke also stated that he was working on behalf of the government of the Gabonese Republic and serving as a Delegate from Gabon to the United Nations. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. Mbonke allegedly showed Huynh what appeared to be a diplomatic passport from the Gabonese Republic in Mbonke's name. Id. ¶ 18. Huynh found Mbonke to be "well-spoken, well-dressed and politically informed." Id. ¶ 16.

         Huynh again met Defendants Mbonke and Massenya at the Bethesda Marriott on January 19, 2011. ECF No. 1 ¶ 19. During this meeting, Mbonke allegedly told Huynh how money could be "legally printed" using "specially-produced white paper" from the United States Treasury and specific chemicals. Id. ¶ 20. Mbonke and Massenya told Huynh that this special white paper was transported from the U.S. Treasury to the government of Gabon, and that this process was "officially sanctioned" by both governments. Id. ¶ 21. Mbonke said that he had some of this white paper in his possession, with authorization from the Gabonese government to use it. See Id. ¶ 22. Mbonke and Massenya allegedly demonstrated to Huynh how they could turn the white paper into bona fide U.S. currency. Id. ¶ 23. Mbonke and Massenya asked Huynh for $800, 000, which they would use to convert the white paper, double his sum of $800, 000, and pay Huynh for his land. See Id. ¶ 24. Huynh agreed, and withdrew $800, 000 from his bank account on May 16, 2011. Id. ¶ 25. Huynh gave Mbonke and Massenya $500, 000 of the funds, and turned over the remaining $300, 000 soon thereafter. Id. ¶¶ 27-31.

         On May 19, 2011, Huynh went with Mbonke and Massenya to a residence in Laurel, Maryland, which Massenya represented to be Massenya's uncle's house. ECF No. 1 ¶ 30. Mbonke and Massenya told Huynh they were going to turn the white paper into real money, and instructed him to wait in another room. Id. ¶ 33. Eventually, Mbonke and Massenya told Huynh that the white paper had a undesirable pinkish tint on it, and that they would need additional chemicals to get rid of the tint. Id. ¶ 34. Huynh did not actually see any of the money during this time. Id. ¶ 35. Mbonke and Massenya told Huynh that they would allow him to hold onto his money and the white paper money for the time being. Id. ¶ 35. Massenya and Huynh went to purchase two safes from a Staples supply store, which Massenya and Mbonke said they would use to store the money. Id. ¶ 37. Massenya and Mbonke told Huynh that Huynh could keep the safe and the money while Mbonke traveled to Paris to retrieve the necessary chemicals, and Mbonke would hold onto the combination and the keys. Id. ¶¶ 38-40.

         Massenya and Mbonke told Huynh that the chemicals would cost an additional $250, 000, of which Mbonke and Massenya would pay $170, 000, ECF No. 1 ¶ 42-4-3, and Huynh would need to pay the remaining $80, 000. Id. ¶ 44. Huynh agreed to take out the cash. See Id. ¶ 49. According to Plaintiff, Mbonke then arranged a meeting between Massenya, Huynh, and an "agent from a Canadian chemical company." Id. ¶ 45. On July 10, 2011, Massenya and Huynh went to Reagan National Airport in Crystal City, Virginia to meet the agent. Id. ¶ 46. Massenya went inside the airport to get the "Canadian chemical agent, " and brought him back out to the car where Huynh was waiting. Id. ¶ 48. Massenya, Huynh, and the agent discussed the cost of the chemicals for approximately ten minutes, and Huynh then transferred his $80, 000 into the agent's backpack. Id. ¶ 49. Plaintiff Huynh believes the identity of the Canadian chemical agent to actually be Defendant LeGrand, who had visited the Jaguar dealership the year prior. Id. ¶ 50.

         Several days later, Mbonke called Huynh and said that the chemical company had received part of the funds for the chemicals, and that Mbonke would return from Paris and drive to Canada with the rest of the funds. ECF No. 1 ¶ 51. However, on July 16, 2011, Mbonke called again and told Huynh that while Mbonke was driving from the United States to Canada, he was pulled over for speeding. Id. ¶ 52. Mbonke said that he was detained for 48 hours, that U.S. Customs had confiscated all the money and chemicals, and that Mbonke had been sent back to France, forbidden from returning to the United States for at least six months. Id. ¶ 52. Mbonke asked Huynh to inform Massenya of what had happened. Id. ¶ 53. Huynh met with Massenya one more time on July 20, 2011. Id. ¶ 54. While Mbonke and Massenya have allegedly maintained telephone contact with Huynh, Huynh has never seen them again. Id. ¶ 56.

         Huynh filed the instant Complaint on May 19, 2014 against the Gabonese Republic, Kodzo Massenya, Charles Mbonke, and Jean LeGrand, alleging conversion, fraud, and civil conspiracy. ECF No. 1. Defendant Massenya was served on September 9, 2014, but was the only Defendant upon whom service was effectuated. ECF No. 10. None of the Defendants has entered an appearance in this matter. Upon a motion from the Plaintiff, ECF No. 11, the Clerk entered default as to Defendant Massenya on January 9, 2015, ECF No. 12. Plaintiff moved for default judgment against Defendant Massenya on January 12, 2015, but the Court denied the Motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b), which governs judgment against multiple defendants. ECF No. 18. The Court determined that it would be improper and risk inconsistent judgments to grant default judgment against one Defendant before the other Defendants were served and the matter adjudicated as to all Defendants. Id. at 2.[2] On August 4, 2017, this Court dismissed Gabon as a defendant, ECF No. 36, and on August 11, 2017, Huynh voluntarily dismissed Mbonke and Legrand as defendants, ECF No. 37. With Massenya being the sole remaining defendant, Huynh renewed his Motion for Default Judgment on August 18, 2017. ECF No. 39.


         "When a party against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead or otherwise defend, and that failure is shown by affidavit or otherwise, the clerk must enter the party's default." Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a). "A 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." Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp. v. Optimum Welding, 285 F.R.D. 371, 373 (D. Md. 2012). Although "[t]he Fourth Circuit has a 'strong policy' that 'cases be decided on their merits, '" Choice Hotels Intern., Inc. v. Savannah Shakti Carp., No. DKC-11-0438, 2011 WL 5118328 at *2 (D. Md. Oct. 25, 2011) (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." Lawbaugh, 359 F.Supp.2d at 422. Thus, the court first determines whether the unchallenged factual allegations constitute a legitimate cause of action. Agora Fin., LLC v. Samler, 725 F.Supp.2d 491, 494 (D. Md. 2010). In determining whether the factual allegations constitute a legitimate cause of action, courts typically apply the Iqbal/Twombly pleading standard. See Baltimore Line Handling Co. v. Brophy, 771 F.Supp.2d 531, 544 (D. Md. 2011) (finding Iqbal "relevant to the default judgment inquiry"). Under Iqbal, a complaint fails to state a claim entitling the pleader to relief if the complaint offers only '"labels and conclusions'" or '"naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007)). As the Fourth Circuit has recognized, '"the court need not accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts, and [ ] need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.'" Monroe v. City of Charlottesville, 579 F.3d 380, 385-86 (4th Cir.2009) (citation omitted), cert, denied, 559 U.S. 992 (2010); accord Simmons v. United Mortg. & Loan Investment, LLC, 634 F.3d 754, 768 (4th Cir. 2011). Indeed, "where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not 'show[n]'-'that the pleader is entitled to relief" Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). In cases alleging fraud, "a party must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake. Malice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person's mind may be alleged generally." Hess v. Kafka, 221 F.Supp.3d 669, 675 (D. Md. 2016) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b)).

         If liability is established, the court then makes an independent determination of damages. Agora Financial, LLC, 725 F.Supp.2d at 494 Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(c) limits the type of judgment that may be entered based on a party's default: "A default judgment must not differ in kind from, or exceed in amount, what is demanded in the pleadings." In entering default judgment, a court cannot, therefore, award additional damages "because the defendant could not reasonably have expected that his damages would exceed th[e] amount [pled in the complaint]." In re Genesys Data Techs., Inc., 204 F.3d 124, 132 (4th Cir. 2000). While the Court may hold a hearing to prove damages, it is not required to do so; it may rely instead on "detailed affidavits or documentary evidence to determine the appropriate sum." Adkins, 180 F.Supp.2d at 17 (citing United Artists Corp. v. Freeman, 605 F.2d 854, 857 (5th Cir. 1979)); see also Laborers' District Council Pension, et al. v. E.G.S., Inc., No. WDQ-09-3174, 2010 WL 1568595, at *3 (D. Md. Apr. 16, 2010) ("[O]n default judgment, the Court may only award damages without a hearing if the record supports the damages requested.").

         III. ...

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