RUBEN E. WATKINS, APPELLANT
MICHAEL TURNER AND MEGAN RAMIREZ, APPELLEES
APPEAL FROM THE GREENE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. CV-2013-170] HONORABLE MELISSA BRISTOW RICHARDSON, JUDGE
Branch, Thompson, Warmath & Dale, P.A., by: Adam H. Butler, for appellant.
Jason Auer, Legal Aid of Arkansas, Inc., for appellees.
RITA W. GRUBER, Judge
Ruben Watkins appeals the circuit court's June 26, 2015 judgment against him that awarded damages to each of two plaintiffs, Michael Turner and Megan Ramirez (now appellees). Watkins contends that the circuit court committed reversible error (1) by awarding compensatory damages and punitive damages that resulted from a May 8, 2015 default judgment, which was entered as a discovery sanction, and (2) by awarding the default judgment as a discovery sanction. We affirm.
On September 20, 2013, appellees filed a complaint against Watkins for forcible entry and detainer, assault and outrage, conversion, unjust enrichment, and violation of Arkansas and federal Fair Housing Acts. Their complaint was based on the following allegations. Appellees received an assignment of lease for a Paragould residence in August 2012 and, with Watkins's consent as lessor, agreed to pay rent of $600 a month. On November 15, 2012, Watkins and his maintenance man arrived at the residence and told appellees that they must immediately vacate due to failure to pay rent. Appellees responded that they had not received an eviction notice as required by law. Watkins went to his truck, returned with a Ruger .380 handgun, pointed it at appellees and their young child, and said, "This is your eviction notice." Watson and the maintenance man made derogatory remarks, referring to "coon hunting." Watson directed several racial slurs toward appellee Turner, a person of African American and Indonesian descent, and appellee Ramirez, a person of Hispanic and Native American descent. Appellees called the Paragould Police Department because of the gun threat. Watkins was arrested at the scene and charged with criminal assault but was released from custody the same day. Fearing for their safety, appellees vacated the residence without arrangements to remove some of their larger possessions; Watkins did not release those items. Appellee Ramirez missed one day of work due to the incident. On March 21, 2013, Watkins was convicted in district court of third-degree assault.
On October 28, 2013, Watkins filed a motion for leave to file his answer out of time under Arkansas Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b), a provision that gives the circuit court discretion to accept an answer out of time for good cause shown. The motion recited that Watkins was in poor health at seventy-nine years of age; he had suffered congestive heart failure in the thirty days since service of the complaint, which had required several days' hospitalization; he had been confined to his residence for extended times after being released from the hospital and was dependent on oxygen; and the allegations in appellees' complaint were extensive and required an extensive answer. Watkins also filed an answer to appellees' complaint on October 28, 2013. He denied the allegations that were the basis of each count; affirmatively pleaded defenses that included a failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, fraud, laches, unclean hands, and no government action; and prayed that the complaint be dismissed.
On November 6, 2013, appellees responded to Watkins's motion for leave to file answer out of time, requesting that it be denied for lack of "just cause." In the same filing, they moved to strike his answer and moved for a default judgment.
Watkins filed a counterclaim on November 21, 2013, alleging that appellees had voluntarily abandoned the premises after they were asked to vacate for failure to pay rent, and praying for judgment in the amount of unpaid rent.
On February 21, 2014, the circuit court heard the parties' arguments on Watkins's motion for leave to file answer out of time, appellees' response to his motion, and appellees' motions to strike and for default judgment. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court orally granted Watkins's motion for leave to file answer out of time; the record, however, contains no written order reflecting any ruling on the motion.
On November 18, 2014, appellees filed a motion for sanctions under Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 37(b)(2), which addresses sanctions for failure to comply with an order for discovery. Under that provision, "the court in which the action is pending may make such orders in regard to the failure as are just." Ark. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2) (2015). Appellees alleged in their motion that as of November 18, 2014-eight months after they had propounded to Watkins interrogatories and requests for production of documents, on February 27, 2014-he had not answered. The motion also alleged that Watkins had not responded to a June 30, 2014 reminder letter to his counsel of the delinquency in answering interrogatories and requests for production; to appellees' August 12, 2014 motion to compel discovery; and to the court's October 30, 2014 order compelling him to produce discovery by November 17, 2014. The motion asserted that Watkins's right to defend should be deemed waived due to his "willful refusal to participate in this litigation." Appellees prayed that the court, as allowed by Rule 37(b)(2)(C), enter an order "striking out pleadings or parts thereof, or . . . rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party." Alternatively, they prayed under Rule 37(b)(2)(A) for an order that the matters set forth in their complaint "shall be taken to be established" or under –(b)(2)(B) for an order "refusing to allow the disobedient party to support or oppose designated claims or defenses, " to include Watkins's counterclaim. See Ark. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2)(A), (B).
By order of January 17, 2015, the court scheduled a May 8, 2015 hearing on appellees' Rule 37 motion for relief. At the hearing, appellees' counsel recounted that Watkins's counsel had not responded to the interrogatories, letter of reminder, order to compel, or Rule 37 motion. Appellees' counsel stated to the court, "I served everything on Mr. Deprow [Watkins's counsel]. . . . The court never signed an order of withdrawal. I am seeking a default judgment as to liability and I would like to set a hearing on damages." The court orally ruled,
Under the circumstances it appears Ruben Watkins has willfully failed and refused to comply with the rules regarding discovery and a prior Order of Court dated October 31, 2014. He should not be allowed to proceed further by way of defense of this matter. I find that as to the issue of liability, Turner and Ramirez are entitled to judgment against ...