The plaintiff in Wooten v. McDonald Transit Assocs. sued for age discrimination and the defendant defaulted. The trial court received damages evidence and entered judgment for the plaintiff. The defendant then appeared – unsuccessfully – but obtained reversal from the Fifth Circuit. No. 13-11035 (Jan 2, 2015).
“On appeal, the [defaulted] defendant, although he may not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, is entitled to contest the sufficiency of the complaint and its allegations to support the judgment.” Here, the majority saw the pleading as a “threadbare recital of a cause of action,” especially weak as to causation. At the hearing, however, “[P]laintiff’s live testimony provides sufficient evidence of each of the elements of his ADEA cause of action to support the entry of default.”
After a careful review of the language of the rules, precedent, and policy, the majority emphasized the pleadings over the evidence: “As there can be no judgment absent competent pleadings, it strains the text of [Rule 55] to suppose that this investigatory power encompasses the adduction of facts necessary to render the pleadings competent in the first place.” The trial court should have either dismissed or, in one of various ways, ordered amendment of the pleadings and afforded the defendant the chance to answer them. A dissent found that “[t]his result is inordinately lopsided and, even worse, favors the wearer of the black hat over the wearer of the white hat.”