In a litigator’s nightmare, when old wooden floors creak and the house speaks in sinister tones to its owner, it’s not: “Get Out!” that the lawyer hears. It’s: “Your Responses to the Admissions are Late.” Such is the life.
Alas, relief doesn’t always come with morning light. As Judge Davis points out in Cumberland Cnty. Hosp. Sys., Inc. v. Woodcock, 2023 NCBC 45, “timely, good faith answers” to requests for admission are still required. Id. ¶ 14 (citing WXQR Marine Broad. Corp. v. JAI, Inc., 350 S.E.2d 912, 913 (1986)). Plus, matters admitted are “conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment.” See N.C. R. Civ. P. 36(b).
Cumberland examines the nightmare scenario. Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment depended upon “the matters contained in its requests for admission being deemed admitted by Woodcock.” Defendant alleged he’d not been served and that his counsel was unaware of the requests upon appearing. Woodcock, ¶¶ 14, 16. He moved under Rule 36 for the opportunity to withdraw or amend any deemed admission arising from his alleged non-response.
The Business Court noted that its authority to allow such a motion is broad. The Court may allow withdrawal or amendment when:
“(1) the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and (2) 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. ¶ 15 (quoting WXCR, 350 S.E.2d at 913); see also Pritchard v. Dow Agro. Scis., 255 F.R.D. 164, 172 (W.D. Pa. 2009) (similar test in federal court).
The Court observed that the parties “spar[red] over” the issue of actual service “at great length,” but concluded “that some degree of confusion exists regarding the service of the requests . . . so as to warrant relief under Rule 36.” Moreover, Judge Davis held that plaintiff “failed to convince” the Court that it “will suffer any degree of prejudice” from allowing Woodcock to serve responses. Id. ¶ 17. See Bergemann v. United States, 820 F.2d 1117, 1120-21 (10th Cir. 1987) (“prejudice contemplated by Rule 36(b) is not simply that the party who obtained the admission now has to convince the jury of its truth.”)
The Court’s finding that a clear narrative about service was lacking is key in North Carolina, where Rule 36(b) can spawn austere results in cases with unanswered admissions. For instance, in Goins v. Puleo, 350 N.C. 277, 280-81 (1999), the Supreme Court held that a pro se plaintiff must lose a medical malpractice action at summary judgment for failure to respond to a request to admit that the defendants had not violated the applicable standard of care. The defendants had a return receipt signed by plaintiff’s husband which prompted the presumption of proper service of the admissions.
- The Court’s ruling commends that propounding parties seeking to weaponize missing or untimely responses to requests for admission carefully document delivery and receipt information critical to potential Rule 36 enforcement.
- Justice Frye’s dissent in Goins provides a policy roadmap for defendants seeking to set aside requests deemed admitted by operation of Rule 36. He emphasized that the rule also hinges on the principle of cases being decided on the merits, and that courts should resist “employ[ing] the rule to establish facts which are obviously in dispute or to answer questions of law.” Goins, 350 N.C. at 284-85 (quoting Kosta v. Connolly, 709 F.Supp. 592, 594 (E.D. Pa. 1989).
Brad Risinger is a partner in the Raleigh office of Fox Rothschild LLP.