United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
J. HAZEL United States District Judge
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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)).
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)).
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