Not A Game: Don't Let Requests For Admission Slide!by Joshua Hiller on 02/29/12
If you or your client has been served with requests for admission, a recent decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals highlights how important it is to respond before the deadline has expired. Inattention, laziness or carelessness can be fatal to your case. In the case of Nyguyen v. Taylor (COA11-369, Feb 21, 2012), a defendant’s failure to respond to requests for admission led to a $15,000,000 judgment.
For benefit of non-attorneys, requests for admission are a type of discovery device in which one party serves upon another a written set of proposed facts (i.e., “The light was green when Mr. Jones drove through the intersection.”). The receiving party must either admit or deny each fact in a separate written response. Rule 36 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure establishes strict deadlines for the responses.
On October 28, 2005, the plaintiffs, who were officers with the Greensboro Police Department, arrested Jayceon Taylor, a hip hot artist better known as “The Game” at the Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro and charged him with criminal trespass, communicating threats, and disorderly conduct. An individual in Mr. Taylor’s entourage recorded the arrest with a video camera. A heavily edited version of that video recording, which made it appear as though Mr. Taylor was wrongfully arrested, was included as a bonus feature on a documentary DVD released by Taylor and others, entitled “Stop Snitchin’ Stop Lyin.”
The plaintiffs filed a complaint against Mr. Taylor, and multiple other individuals and companies, including Black Wall Street Records, Grind Music, Jump Off Films, Universal Home Video, and YouTube. The officers’ claims included defamation, wrongful appropriation of a likeness, and unfair and deceptive practices.
Mr. Taylor prevailed in part on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, which the plaintiffs appealed. The trial court stayed the action while the appeal was pending. On October 20, 2009, the Court of Appeals dismissed the plaintiffs’ appeal on procedural grounds. The plaintiffs’ claims against Mr. Taylor for defamation, wrongful appropriation, and unfair and deceptive practices remained.
Afterwards, the plaintiffs served Mr. Taylor with requests for admission. He did not respond within the thirty-day time period. It does not appear from the record that Mr. Taylor ever responded to the requests for admission. At trial, the plaintiffs moved for summary judgment against Mr. Taylor on the basis of his failure to respond to the requests for admission. The trial court entered summary judgment against Mr. Taylor and proceeded to a bench trial on the issue of damages. It awarded the plaintiffs a total of $5M in compensatory damages, and $10M in punitive damages against the remaining defendants, including Mr. Taylor.
On appeal, Mr. Taylor challenged the trial court’s summary judgment award on the basis of the unanswered requests for admission. The Court of appeals rejected his argument. Instead, it held that the trial court properly relied upon Mr. Taylor’s admissions in granting summary judgment to plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs served requests for admission under Rule 36, which provides, among other things, “[t]he matter is admitted unless, within 30 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.”
Mr. Taylor did not respond. The Court of Appeals concluded with no debate that the facts within the plaintiffs’ request were deemed admitted by Mr. Taylor, because he failed to answer or otherwise object to the requests. It noted that our Supreme Court has stated that “[f]acts that are admitted under Rule 36(b) are sufficient to support a grant of summary judgment.” Goins v. Puleo, 350 N.C. 277, 280, 512 S.E.2d 748, 750 (1999). The Court of Appeals went on to conclude that the admitted facts sufficiently established each element of defamation per se, wrongful appropriation, and unfair and deceptive practices.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to award the plaintiffs summary judgment against Mr. Taylor and that it properly considered the unanswered requests for admissions at the damages trial. The Court did vacate a portion of the punitive damages award for other reasons and remanded for consideration of whether evidence of certain
aggravating factors met required standards of proof.
The lesson here is to treat requests for admission with the utmost attention and careful consideration. Litigants must take additional steps with the court to seek relief for unanswered requests for production, interrogatories, or when a deponent does not show for his or her deposition. This is not the case with requests for admission. Under Rule 36, if a party does not object or respond with the required time period, they are automatically deemed admitted. Ignoring such requests could be a multi-million dollar mistake.
In some cases, a plaintiff will serve requests for admission upon a defendant with the complaint and summons, or very quickly afterwards – perhaps even before a lawyer is retained. In that case, it is very important to immediately consult legal counsel. Do not rely on casual agreements with the opposing side, or have the mistaken belief that a failure to respond can be easily remedied later. Inattention is a risk taken at your own peril, as evident in this example.