Monday, February 3, 2014

Gotcha! Deemed Admitted! Nope...

St. Mary v. Superior Court, H038918 (D6 Jan. 31, 2014)

The Sixth District grants a writ on a discovery matter. It holds that four-day late requests for admission can’t be deemed admitted when the responding party served responses that substantially complied with the requirements of Code of Civil Procedure § 2033.220 prior to the hearing on the propounding party’s motion to have them deemed admitted.

Defendants served plaintiff with 119 RFAs. When Plaintiff, on several occasions, asked for extensions of time to respond, defendants ignored her requests. They finally got back to her the day after response were due and said they would agree to a two week extension, but only if plaintiff dismissed one defendant with prejudice. Plaintiff served her responses—which substantively responded to the requests—four days late. Four days after that, Defendants moved under § 2033.280(b) to have the RFAs deemed admitted due to the tardy response. The trial court conducted a request-by-request examination of the responses, and determined that some of the responses failed to comply with the code, while others were appropriate. It ultimately entered an order deeming forty-one of the requests admitted due to the lack of substantial compliance with § 2033.220. Plaintiff sought writ review.

The court of appeal explained that there are different avenues to address problems with responses to RFAs. If responses are not timely served, the propounding party can file a “deemed to admit” motion under § 2033.280(b). If the responses were, in fact, not timely filed, the court is required to grant that motion unless the responding party serves responses substantially compliant with § 2033.220 before the hearing on the motion. But if there is substantial compliance, the motion must be denied. On the other hand, if responses to individual RFAs are unsatisfactory, the propounding party can file a motion to compel further responses under
§ 2033.290. On a motion to compel, the drastic remedy of having the requests deemed admitted is available only if the court first orders further responses to be made and the responding party fails to abide by that order. See Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 2033.290(e).

What the trial court did here was to apply the motion to compel analysis to the
deemed to admit motion—it used a motion that is primarily directed at timeliness to evaluate the sufficiency of individual RFA responses. In ordering that individual responses the court found to  be insufficient deemed admitted, the court skipped the step where—had they been properly addressed in a motion to compel—it would have first ordered further responses, with the deeming admitted available only as a sanction for failing to abide by that order under § 2033.290(d). 

In contrast, § 2033.280(c) requires a court to deny a
deemed to admit motion if the responding party serves responses that are substantially compliant with § 2033.220 before the hearing on the motion. “Substantial compliance” is not an invitation to parse the sufficiency of responses on a request-by-request basis. That is more properly the subject for a motion to compel. On a deemed to admit motion under § 2033.280, the court should limit the substantial compliance inquiry to evaluating “qualitatively the proposed response to RFAs in toto to determine whether it substantially complies with the Code.”  Under that standard, plaintiff’s responses substantially complied with the Code’s requirements: they were properly verified, the responses to sixty-four of the 119 requests were simple admissions or denials that were unquestionably code-complaint, and the others provided meaningful, substantive responses. Further, they were served not just well before the hearing on the deemed to admit motion, but before the motion was even filed. Thus, the trial court abused its discretion in partially granting the motion in part and deeming the forty-one RFAs admitted.

The court goes on to note that many of the forty-one responses the trial court deemed non-complaint as “not unequivocal and incomplete” were actually proper under the Code. The fact that these responses contained short statements that explained the basis for denials did not make them improper. Nor was the fact that plaintiff partially admitted some requests while taking issue with and denying certain characterizations of facts contained therein. To the extent that a few of plaintiff’s responses might not have been fully Code-complaint, defendant’s remedy was to file a motion to compel under § 2033.290. But, of course, only after conducting the meet and confer required by § 2033.290(b).

Writ granted.

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