Friday, January 31, 2014

St. Mary v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 31, 2014)

The California Court of Appeal doesn't grant writs on most routine discovery matters.  But it does here, and I'm glad it did.

Defendant serves 119 RFAs, and plaintiff responds to them, but does so four days late.  Defendant then immediately files a motion to deem the RFAs admitted.

So far, that's fine.  Plaintiff should have timely responded, but better a late response than ever.  For its part, defendant was probably playing the "RFA lottery," but that's fine too.  So is its motion to deem the RFAs admitted.  Worth a shot.  Especially since some of the belated RFA answers arguably might not be in substantial compliance with the rules.

The trial court examined the belated answers to the RFAs and deemed lots of them admitted.  The Court of Appeal granted plaintiff's writ and reverses.

The trial court made two errors.  First, it examined the RFA answers individually rather than in toto to determine if the belated answers were in "substantial compliance" with the rules.  Some of plaintiff's RFA answers were clearly fine:  They were simply "Admit" or "Deny".

Other answers, by contrast, were less awesome.  In a not-infinitely-bright move, counsel for plaintiff decided that even though the RFA answers were untimely, he'd add commentary to his admissions or denials.  For example, for RFA No. 20:

“Admit you attended a meeting with David Nilsen on or about January 13, 2006.”  Response: “Admit. Thomas Schellenberg was also present.”  Okay, fine.  Though I'd have been more careful given the untimeliness of the response and left that last part out.  Or, in a related vein, RFA no. 91:

“Admit you received a letter from David Nilsen, owner of Cedar Funding, Inc.[,] on or about April 9, 2008, telling you that there were problems at Cedar Funding, Inc.”  The following response would be just fine:  Admit that I received the letter, deny the description of its contents."  But plaintiff instead says:  "Deny. That letter dated April 10, 2008, was by no means a statement of ‘problems at Cedar Funding, Inc.’ but attribution of all delays to ‘the worldwide financial markets are in turmoil due to the
effects of the U.S. sub-prime mortgage markets[,]’ and ‘investment banks like Bear Stearns.’ In fact, on 4/17/08 at 5:26 P.M., Mr. Schellenberg answered my inquiry of one hour earlier by personally attributing all problems to a declining, problematic economy and urging me to discount ‘rumor and fear, innuendo and imagination.’ All problems fully known and understood by Mr. Schellenberg and Mr. Nilsen were continued to be concealed. [Sic.]”  Ugh.

But the Court of Appeal nonetheless holds that, taken as a whole, the RFA responses were indeed "in substantial compliance" with the rules.  Holding that trial courts don't examine each RFA individually to make this determination.

The second error was just a basic abuse of discretion.  The Court of Appeal clearly didn't like the propounding of 119 RFAs and the rapid-fire motion to deem 'em admitted.  It thought -- rightly -- that defendant was trying to pull a procedural trick.  One authorized by the rules, perhaps, but not one to be favored.  We prefer adjudication on the merits.  Especially when -- as here -- there's at least a pretty strong facial allegation that the defendant is indeed a sleaze who defrauded plaintiff out of her hard-earned money.  We're not really going to stretch to let 'em get away with that based upon some slight errors in responding to a hundred-plus RFAs.

None of which means that lawyers should take RFAs lightly.  Far from it.  Respond early.  Respond clearly.  Don't find yourself in a situation where -- as here -- you're desperately hoping that the Court of Appeal will grant a writ.