Answers to RFA’s

May 22, 2018 § 6 Comments

MRCP 36 Requests for Admission are quite useful in domestic litigation. Following is the language of the rule dealing with answers, annotated with my comments:

“(a) … The matter is admitted unless, within thirty days after service of the request, or within such shorter or longer time as the court may allow, the party to whom the request is directed serves upon the party requesting the admission a written answer or objection addressed to the matter, signed by the party or by his attorney, but, unless the court shortens the time, a defendant shall not be required to serve answers or objections before the expiration of forty-five days after service of the summons upon him. If objection is made, the reasons therefor shall be stated.”

CommentSubject to the language below in Paragraph b, you have to get your response filed within 30 days. The rule says that the attorney can sign for the client, but I don’t recommend that because often the answering party is literally stuck with and by the response. When the client signs it’s hard for him to maintain later that he never intended to admit that fact. Note that the reasons for an objection must be stated; remember that you and your client are bound by what you state. If you don’t assign a particular reason, you likely have waived it, subject to Paragraph b.

“The answer shall specifically deny the matter or set forth in detail the reasons why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny the matter.”

Comment: I suggest that you repeat the language of the request in the denial so that there is no doubt as to what is admitted (e.g., “Defendant admits that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017” rather than “Admitted.” This may sound fussy, but unless you can give me a persuasive reason not to do it my way, I stand my ground.

“A denial shall fairly meet the substance of the requested admission, and when good faith requires that a party qualify his answer or deny only a part of the matter of which an admission is requested, he shall specify so much of it as is true and qualify or deny the remainder.”

Comment: Here is where the advice immediately above becomes clear. By saying only “denied,” in the above example, you are denying every word. But the answer, “Defendant denies that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017” leaves no doubt whatsoever what exactly he is denying. And that is what the rule requires. The rule also clearly requires that if you are admitting in part and denying in part you have to specify (e.g., “Defendant admits that he was at the home of Francine Jones, but denies that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017”).

“An answering party may not give lack of information or knowledge as a reason for failure to admit or deny unless he states that he has made reasonable inquiry and that the information known or readily obtainable by him is insufficient to enable him to admit or deny.”

Comment:  This requirement is seldom met, in my experience. If you are going to seek refuge behind lack of information, you are going to have to take a further step and make reasonable inquiry to obtain that information. Only after making “reasonable inquiry” may you then state that the information known or readily obtainable is insufficient to enable an admission or denial complying with the rule. The requirement of reasonable inquiry is a good reason always to require your client to sign the responses. Oh, and keep in mind that your failure to answer with the reasonable inquiry language may provoke a motion to take the matter as admitted, which means that you will have an uphill climb to convince the judge to let you amend, as provided in Paragraph b.

“A party who considers that a matter of which an admission has been requested presents a genuine issue for trial may not, on that ground alone, object to the request; he may, subject to Rule 37(c), deny the matter or set forth reasons why he cannot admit or deny it.”

Comment:  No matter how inane the request, you have to answer the substance of the request. It’s never adequate to respond like “This is a modification action, after all, and adverse effect on the child has been pled.”

“The party who has requested the admissions may move to determine the sufficiency of the answers or objections. Unless the court determines that an objection is justified, it shall order that an answer be served.”

Comment:  If the court determines that an objection is unjustified, then it must order than an answer be served. You get another shot at an answer. This is why an objection is better than an unresponsive answer.

“If the court determines that an answer does not comply with the requirements of this section, it may order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended answer be served.”

Comment:  Here is where your chickens come home to roost if you don’t properly answer with “reasonable inquiry” or make some kind of unresponsive answer. You run the risk that the judge will merely order that the matter be taken as admitted. There are no factors for the judge to apply; it’s within the judge’s discretion whether to order that it be taken as admitted or that you may file an amended answer.

“The court may, in lieu of these orders, determine that final disposition of the request be made at a pre-trial conference or at a designated time prior to trial. Rule 37(a)(4) applies to the award of expenses incurred in relation to the motion.”

Comment:  Self-explanatory.

“(b) Effect of Admission. Any matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission.”

Comment:  Conclusively established means exactly that. “Any admission that is not amended or withdrawn cannot be rebutted by contrary testimony or ignored by the court even if the party against whom it is directed offers more credible evidence.” DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 801 (Miss. 2002).

“Subject to the provisions governing amendment of a pre-trial order, the court may permit withdrawal or amendment 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.”

Comment:  Although the rule appears to provide that you will be allowed to amend or withdraw a response if you can show (a) that presentation of the merits will be subserved, and (b) the other side can not show prejudice, the MSSC has held that the trial court “may,” but is not required, to consider the two prongs of the rule in denying a motion to withdraw or amend. Young v. Smith, 67 So. 3d 732, 740 (Miss. 2011).

“Any admission made by a party under this rule is for the purpose of the pending action only and is not an admission by him for any other purpose nor may it be used against him in any other proceeding.”

Comment:  Don’t expect to use those old admissions from your opposing party’s first divorce in this second one.

Taking as Admitted … or not

September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

Ursel Williams sued her husband, Wayne Williams, for separate maintenance after he left her. In the course of litigation, Wayne propounded R 36 requests for admission (RFA’s), most of which went to the merits of Ursel’s claims. Ursel never responded, and Wayne moved at trial for the chancellor to take the requests as admitted. She refused. Wayne appealed the judge’s grant of separate maintenance and raised in his appeal the issue of the chancellor’s refusal to take the admissions as admitted.

In Williams v. Williams, decided August 22, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee wrote for a 7 1/2 -1 1/2 court (Judge Wilson joined the dissent “in part”):

¶7. Rule 36 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure governs requests for admissions. The rule states, in pertinent part, that a matter will be deemed admitted if the party upon whom the request was served does not timely respond or file an objection addressed to the matter. M.R.C.P. 36(a). A timely response equates to one being made within thirty days. See id. Thereafter, the matter is conclusively established unless the court permits the admission’s withdrawal or amendment. M.R.C.P. 36(b). “A matter that is deemed admitted does not require further proof.” Locklear v. Sellers, 126 So. 3d 978, 981 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). Still, while “Rule 36 is to be applied as written, . . . ‘it is not intended to be applied in Draconian fashion.’” In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock & Hamby, 23 So. 3d 424, 432 (¶28) (Miss. 2009) (quoting DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 801-02 (¶26) (Miss. 2002)). Specifically, “[a] certain amount of discretion is vested in the [chancellor] with respect to whether he or she will take matters as admitted.” Earwood v. Reeves, 798 So. 2d 508, 514 (¶19) (Miss. 2001) (citation omitted).

¶8. The problem here is that the admissions produced contradictory results. Some of the requests asked Ursel to admit that: the separation was her fault, Wayne did not refuse to support her, and Wayne did not abandon her. However, another request asked Ursel to admit that “there is no significant conduct on [y]our part that negatively impacts the enjoyment of the marriage contract.” Ursel obviously admitted to this statement in her untimely response. As such, we fail to see how the matter could be conclusively established as Wayne argues; thus, it was within the chancellor’s discretion to rely on the trial testimony to resolve any conflicts. Furthermore, the chancellor recognized that it was within her discretion to review the reason for Ursel’s failure to timely answer the requests for admissions. The chancellor found the delay of thirty-three days was not “critical,” and we can find no abuse of discretion in this instance. The dissent states that Wayne’s requests for admissions were deemed
admitted for Ursel’s failure to timely reply and that the contradictory admission does not encompass the essential elements of Ursel’s separate-maintenance claim. However, the dissent concedes that it is within the chancellor’s discretion whether to take matters as admitted. In this instance, we cannot find error by the chancellor.

Nothing earthshaking here.

In child custody cases, RFA’s may not be relied upon by the chancellor as the body of proof. And here is another post (with the same title) on the point.

It’s important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t send RFA’s out to do the bulk of the heavy lifting in your case. They aren’t designed to do that. As the court has said, the purpose of the request for admission under Rule 36 is “to determine which facts are not in dispute . … It is not intended to be used as a vehicle to escape adjudication of the facts by means of artifice or happenstance.” DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 802 (Miss. 2002).

THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

June 11, 2013 § 5 Comments

We all know that MRCP 36 dealing with Requests for Admission (RFA) has some sharp teeth that can inflict painful, if not fatal, wounds on your case. R36(b) says that any matter admitted is “conclusively admitted,” unless the court allows withdrawal or amendment of the response.

The scope and dire effect of that “conclusively admitted” language was explored in the COA case of Aydelott v. Quartaro, decided June 4, 2013. The case at trial was one for grandparent visitation, based on a claim that the grandparents had established the statutorily-required relationship with the grandchildren and had provided support. The chancellor allowed the Quartaros to testify contrary to their admissions, which had been neither withdrawn or amended.

So, was the chancellor’s ruling an inconsequential procedural matter not rising to the level of error, or did it warrant reversal? Here’s how Judge Maxwell answered the question:

¶16. First, the fact the Quartaros had not established a viable relationship had been “conclusively established” through the Quartaros’ responses to the Aydelotts’ requests for admissions made under Rule 36 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. The Aydelotts had requested both Dorothy and Jack admit they “have not provided financial support for the minor children.” Both gave the same response and “admit the allegations contained in Request for Admission No. 12 due to the fact that [their] daughter throws the things away that the Plaintiff buys for the children.” The Quartaros were also asked to admit they “have not visited with the minor children in the last two years” and “have never had frequent visitation with the minor children which included overnight visits for a period of at least one year.” They also admitted they had never had frequent visitation, because Shassidy would not let them. Under Rule 36(b), “[a]ny matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission.” The Quartaros never moved to have their admissions withdrawn or amended. So the fact they had never contributed financially to or had frequent visitation with their granddaughters—and thus had never established a viable relationship—had been conclusively established. See In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock & Hamby, 23 So.3d 424, 433 (¶33) (Miss. 2009); Boyd v. Boyd, 83 So. 3d 409, 416 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011).

¶17. Further, “[a]ny admission that is not amended or withdrawn cannot be rebutted by contrary testimony or ignored by the court even if the party against whom it is directed offers more credible evidence[.]” Gilcrease v. Gilcrease, 918 So. 2d 854, 858 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). Here, the chancellor seemingly ignored the admissions and permitted contradictory testimony that the Quartaros had contributed financially—by allowing Shassidy’s mobile home to be placed on their land—and had frequently visited Acelynn prior to the rift. This was clearly error. While Rule 36 gave the chancellor discretion to permit withdrawal or amendment of the admissions—and is silent about how and when the Quartaros could move for withdrawal or amendment—the fact remains that the Quartaros never moved for withdrawal or amendment, so the lack of financial contribution or frequent visitation were deemed admitted. See Boyd, 83 So. 3d at 416-17 (¶¶21-22).

¶18. We acknowledge that, in the context of child custody, this court has viewed the error of failing to recognize an admitted matter as established and permitting contradictory evidence as merely procedural. Gilcrease, 918 So. 2d at 859 (¶¶8-9). In Gilcrease, when a mother admitted, under Rule 36, that it was in her child’s best interest that custody be awarded to the father, this court found the chancellor’s refusal to deem the best-interest issue admitted was merely a procedural error “made with the proper result in mind.” Gilcrease, 918 So. 2d at 859 (¶9). Because “[c]hild custody is a judicial determination” and not “merely [an] evidentiary matter,” this court held that it would not reverse based on the failure to recognize matters deemed admitted under Rule 36 “absent some other mistake in the chancellor’s substantive decision[-]making process.” Gilcrease, 918 So. 2d at 859 (¶¶8-9).

¶19. Grandparent visitation is different than child custody, as there are other evidentiary considerations besides the child’s best interest that must be considered—namely, whether the grandparent has produced sufficient evidence to show he or she is authorized under the statute to be awarded visitation. Still, while “Rule 36 is to be applied as written, . . . ‘it is not intended to be applied in Draconian fashion.’” Leverock, 23 So. 3d at 432 (¶28) (quoting DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 801-02 (¶26) (Miss. 2002)). Mindful of this tenet, even if we deemed the chancellor’s failure to recognize the Quartaros’ admissions under Rule 36 as merely procedural, we still must reverse due to a second, substantive error—the chancellor’s finding that a viable relationship may be established based on the grandparents’ desire to establish a relationship with their grandchildren.

The decision went on to say that the mere thwarted desire to establish a relationship is not enough.

This case makes clear that inattention to timely supplementation of your discovery can cost your client big, even to the extent of getting a win turned on its head. If in trial preparation or any point before you believe the prior answers to RFA’s are incorrect and too restrictive, move for leave to amend.

Also, pardon me for sounding harsh, but I think the responses to the RFA’s might have been too “cute.” For example, intead of admitting that they had not supported the children because the mother threw things away, I think it would have been quite accurate and truthful to deny it something like this: “Denied as stated. We have bought numerous things for the children, but our daughter has thrown them away.” Sometimes, in that urge to strike back, clients say things that come back to haunt them. That’s what it looks like happened here.

If you try any grandparent visitation cases, you need to be fully aware of the two major categories of cases, as well as the Martin v. Coop factors. Merely because you have grandparents who are willing to pay you a retainer to try for visitation does not mean they have a viable case.

 

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