The Price of Admission
August 17, 2016 § 1 Comment
Chancery court can be a strange land for strangers who spend most of their time in law courts. There, things tend to be pretty black and white; here, well, not so much. One of the things that circuit lawyers find particularly frustrating is that chancellors sometimes seem to look past the black letter of the rules in some of their rulings.
It can cut both ways, though.
In the recent case of Randallson v. Green, a COA case decided June 21, 2016, Arthur Randallson and his wife, April, argued that the chancellor erred in relying on their deemed answers to requests for admission in determining custody.
The case came before the chancery court on a complaint filed by Randall and Laura Green seeking legal and physical custody of Aeva, the daughter of Arthur and April. The Greens filed requests for discovery which were not answered by the Randallsons until 51 days after they were served on them. The chancellor awarded custody to the Greens, and the Randallsons appealed.
Their first assignment of error was that the chancellor erred in relying on their deemed MRCP 36 admissions (RFA’s) to determine custody. Judge Lee wrote for a unanimous court:
¶19. This Court has strictly enforced the application of Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 36 according to its terms. Boyd v. Boyd, 83 So. 3d 409, 416 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “The rule states that a party has thirty days in which to submit a response to a request for admission, or within forty-five days after service of the summons upon a defendant.” Id. (citing M.R.C.P. 36(a)). “Matters will be deemed admitted after this time period, unless the court allows for either a shorter or longer period of time in which to answer.” Id.
However, the trial court, on motion, has the discretion to “permit withdrawal or amendment [of a matter admitted] when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that withdrawal or amendment will prejudice him in maintaining his action or defense on the merits.”
Id. (quoting M.R.C.P. 36(b)).
¶20. The record is clear that Arthur and April filed untimely responses to Randall and Laura’s requests for admissions. See id. at (¶21). They failed to request a withdrawal or amendment of the admissions prior to trial. See id. Thus, the operation of the rules deems the matters admitted. Id. (citing M.R.C.P. 36(a)). “Matters admitted by default under Rule 36(a) are established unless and until the trial court allows amendment or withdrawal by motion under Rule 36(b).” Id. (quoting DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 799 (¶17) (Miss. 2002)).
¶21. However, in Gilcrease v. Gilcrease, 918 So. 2d 854 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005), we held that “child custody is a judicial determination, and is never to be regarded as a merely evidentiary matter.” Boyd, 83 So. 3d at 417 (¶23). Thus, basing a determination of child custody solely on a Rule 36 admission is improper. Id.
¶22. In her bench ruling, the chancellor considered Arthur and April’s admissions. But then the chancellor stated:
[T]his [c]ourt is a court of equity and the attorneys for the plaintiffs know that. They did not . . . rest their case [after the admissions were deemed admitted and] ask me to find by clear and convincing evidence that the parents [were] unfit . . . . They went on to present evidence to this [c]ourt, which gave the [c]ourt some . . . very real concerns.
After discussing the evidence, the chancellor stated that she “considered the totality of the [r]equest for [a]dmissions, the guardian [a]d litem report, [and] the testimony . . . from all of the witnesses” and found “that the [natural-]parent presumption [had] been overcome.”
¶23. Upon a thorough review of the record, we do not find that the chancellor abused her discretion. See id. at 418 (¶28). It is clear that the admissions were not the sole basis for the custody decision. See id. The chancellor heard all of the testimony at trial and used the GAL’s report as part of her consideration, in addition to the admissions by Arthur and April. See id. Therefore, this issue is without merit.
You can take away at some points:
- Failure to answer RFA’s can have as significant effect in a chancery court as in a law court.
- The chancellor in a child custody case may not rely solely on admissions to make its custody decision.
- The only way a chancellor (or any other judge operating under the MRCP) may relieve your client of the effect of admissions, whether deemed or expressly made, is if you timely file a motion and put on proof that (a) the merits of the case will be served by granting the motion, and (b) there is not prejudice to the other party. Fail to do that, and your client is stuck. Wait until the day of trial, and you probably will fail on (b).
- Don’t forget that you can move to “withdraw” or amend even when your client wholly failed to respond at all. You just have to go through the motion routine above.
- But, hey, instead of putting all your chips on a rescue procedure that relies on the possibly sketchy discretion of the judge, why not focus instead on your office procedures? Have a protocol in place that the minute a RFA appears in your email inbox, or is served with process, or is hand-delivered, or arrives in the mail, your staff knows to give it top priority and get it to your immediate attention. Calendar the due date. Make an immediate appointment with the client to come up with responses ASAP. Get the answers filed within a reasonable time.
- Resist the temptation to answer every question with something like, “Defendant is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief …” unless that really and truly is the case. On a bad day the judge could find that sort of response sanctionable.