The discovery process is one of the most critical parts of litigation. As any practitioner knows, the discovery process has very specific and procedurally established deadlines. While these deadlines are frequently missed, and subsequently compelled through court order, one form of discovery carries with it, in theory at least, much stricter deadlines, namely Requests for Admissions.
According to Pa.R.C.P. 4014(b) a party who receives Requests for Admissions has thirty (30) days to answer them; otherwise the requests are deemed conclusively established.
Just how “conclusively” the requests are established was explored in the recent matter of Krepps v. Snyder, 112 A.3d 1246 (Pa.Super.2015). The underlying matter involved a malpractice claim against a podiatrist. The malpractice allegedly involved the podiatrist misapplying amputation prevention procedures to the Plaintiff which resulted in the partial amputation of the Plaintiff’s leg.
At the trial level the court refused to allow the Plaintiff’s admissions to be conclusively established. On the last day of the trial, the Plaintiff attempted to introduce the requests for admissions as conclusively established due to the Defendant’s failure to respond to them in a timely or complete fashion. In response to the Plaintiff’s request to introduce the requests for admissions, the trial court denied the requests on the basis that the Plaintiff’s timing was inappropriate in introducing the requests at the end of trial, that their relative value in the face of the other evidence proffered during the trial was low, and it was the court’s belief that the Plaintiff was not prejudiced by the late (or lack of) responses to the requests for admissions. Instead, the court, used a rather liberal application of Pa.R.C.P. 126 (the rule which states that the Rules of Civil Procedure ought to be applied and construed liberally) to negate the clear terms of Pa.R.C.P. 4014(b). Despite the above, it is also worth noting that the court – rather counter intuitively – also recognized that the admissions “in principle” should be deemed established, but still refused to deem them as such.
The Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision to not find the admissions conclusively established to Pennsylvania Superior Court. In its review of the trial court’s decision, the Superior Court highlighted the portion of Pa.R.C.P. 4014(b) which indicates that the thirty (30) day deadline noted above may be modified to a “shorter or longer time as the court may allow.” Furthermore, it deferred to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Stimmler v. Chestnut Hill Hospital, 602 Pa. 539 (2009) which indicated that the purpose of Pa.R.C.P. 4014(b) is to help expedite the discovery process and placed the onus to enforce the requests for admission on the party requesting them. The Supreme Court went on to say that Rule 4014(b) permits the “withdrawal of or amendment to answers to requests for admissions ‘when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subverted thereby’ and where the requesting party has failed to establish that the withdrawal of or amendment to requests for admissions will prejudice the party ‘in maintaining the action or defense on the merits.”’
Additionally, the Superior Court looked to precedent in suggesting that the Rules of Civil Procedure, while compliance with them is expected, are to be understood as not ends in themselves which, in turn, discourages their rigid application. In short, the Rules are to serve the interests of fairness and justice and the court merely looks for substantial compliance to them.
The Plaintiff argued that an eleven (11) month delay on responding to the requests for admissions substantially affected him and the litigation and, moreover, could not be considered substantial compliance. The Plaintiff also claimed that the trial court’s refusal to enter the admissions into evidence adversely prejudiced his efforts to prove his case as, he argued, the admissions filled in some gaps left open by the other evidence presented at trial.
In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the Superior Court could not conclude that the trial court erred in allowing Pa.R.C.P. 126 to effectively negate the requirements of Pa.R.C.P. 4014(b) in this matter, if only because 4014(b) specifically allows the court to expand or contract those requirements (see above). The Superior Court did view the long delay in responding to the Admissions with disfavor, but it also took note of the fact that even with the long delay the Plaintiff still received responses to them from the Defendant eighteen months prior to the start of trial, which was more than enough time for Plaintiff to seek further discovery if need be. Further, the Plaintiff argued that the trial court’s failure to admit them could have given the jury the appearance that the issues in the Requests were “debated” rather than established. The Superior Court agreed in theory to the Plaintiff’s argument, but ultimately did not find it persuasive enough to overturn the trial court’s decision as the Superior Court agreed with the trial court that the timing of the responses were not prejudicial regardless (see above). In making this decision, the Superior Court looked to the matter of Estate of Borst v. Edward Stover Sr. Testamentary Trust, 30 A.3d 1207 which “observed that ‘[t]he test of prejudice turns on whether a party opposing the withdrawal [of an admission] is rendered less able to obtain the evidence required to prove the matters which had been admitted”’ and in reviewing the instant matter, the Superior Court could not find that the Plaintiff had been so prejudiced. The Superior Court also ruled that trying to admit the Requests at the end of trial – after two days’ worth of testimony – was inappropriate as they should have attempted to admit them at the start of trial. Finally the Superior Court noted that the discovery rules are designed to streamline the litigation and facilitate the eliciting of evidence and are not designed to be punitive; indeed, the court pointed out, that fairness and justice are not always served by strict application of the rules.
Despite what appears to be the very plain language of Pa.R.C.P. 4014(b), the court, through this ruling, appears to have taken some of the teeth out of the Rule and its application in matters where a party does not comply with its thirty (30) day deadline. Practitioners, both those sending and receiving discovery, should be aware of how the court has applied this rule and how to remain compliant with the same.
Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on November 19, 2015 and can be seen here.