Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Disputing the Existence of Deemed Admissions

Facing alleged deemed admissions, and disputing them   

This post discusses fact issues relating to the existence of deemed admissions, and related defense strategies, which are procedural and evidentiary in nature. Separate blog posts address, or will address, other defensive strategies:  (1) A motion to strike or un-deem, which is appropriate in a situation when the existence of deemed admissions cannot be in good faith denied; and (2) a challenge to deemed admissions on the grounds of legal sufficiency (or rather insufficiency) when the plaintiff offers no other evidence, or the other evidence is either not sufficient to entitle the plaintiff to judgment, or not admissible. The latter strategy may even be invoked post-judgment and/or on appeal.


Rule 198.1 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure entitles a litigant to serve requests for admissions on another party. Tex. R. Civ. P. 198.1. Depending upon the time they are served, the party to whom they are addressed has thirty or fifty days to respond to them. Tex. R. Civ. P. 198.2(a). Should the receiving party's response be untimely or nonexistent, each request is deemed admitted without the necessity of a court order. Id. at 198.2(c).

Texas Rule governing Requests for Admission (RFA) and Deemed Admissions
(click on image to enlarge)

Parties may use deemed admissions as a substitute for evidence, either for summary judgment purposes, or at trial. While the rule states that no court order is required for deemed admissions to arise under the rules governing requests for admissions, the proponent of deemed admissions must nevertheless establish that deemed admissions even exist in order to take advantage of them.

Such proof has two components: Proof of service on a specific date, and proof of non-response before the date responses were due, based on the date of service.

When facing a motion for summary judgment based on deemed admissions, a defendant may have several options, depending on the circumstances: (1) filing evidence of non-receipt in the form of an affidavit, and thereby rebutting any presumption of receipt; (2) pointing to lack of anything giving rise to a presumption of receipt in the first instance; (3) pointing to absence of a certificate of discovery mentioning service of a request for admissions, or failing to show the date of such service (combined with the absence of evidence of service).

At trial, the defendant may testify about non-receipt, but if he or she is represented by counsel, the client's testimony about non-receipt would carry (even) less weight because any request would have been served upon his or her attorney of record pursuant to Rule 8. The best evidence of non-receipt may be an returned envelope bearing notation or rubber stamp to the effect that delivery was attempted but not successful. That evidence, of course, would be in the possession of the attorney or law firm that tried to serve the requests and may then be trying to rely on deemed admissions.

Were the requests for admissions served? ... and if so, when? 

In order to rely on deemed admissions in lieu of evidence, the proponent must  establish that the requests for admissions were served in compliance with the rules of civil procedure.  Such a showing can be made with with a certificate of discovery and a certificate of service appended to the requests for admissions.

The difference between the two is that a certificate of service is to be filed with the court, while discovery requests themselves are not supposed to be filed with the court. Therefore, if the proponent wishes to rely on the latter, it must attach a copy of the certificate of service that certifies that the RFAs were properly served upon the defendant or his/her attorney of record on such and such date. The date is essential because it controls the deadline to respond.

Unless the request for admissions itself is already on file with the court (a practice the rules do not condone), the proponent will also have to submit a copy of the requests. Otherwise, the court would not know what propositions the other party admitted by failing to respond. Even if deemed admissions exist, the nature of the admissions must be such as to establish the essential elements of the Plaintiff's claims (or the Defendant's affirmative defense, should the defendant wish to use deemed admissions against the Plaintiff.) Therefore, the existence of deemed admissions does not necessarily guarantee that the party in whose favor they operate will win.

The presumption of receipt is rebuttable, assuming it even arises in the first instance  

Service in conformity with Rule 21a, as certified by means of a certificate of service, creates a presumption of receipt.

Rule 21a of the Tex R. Civ. P. provides for several methods of service.
Regular first class mail is not one of them. Certified mail is.
A certificate by a party or attorney of record is prima facie evidence of the fact of service. Accordingly, rule 21a creates a presumption that documents mailed as provided in the rule were received by the addressee.
However, the opposing party may rebut that presumption by offering proof that the document was not received. The rule expressly provides for this situation by stating that "[n]othing herein shall preclude any party from offering proof that the notice or instrument was not received".

But there is twist: Even when a party does not receive actual notice of requests for admissions, where the serving party has complied with the requirements of rule 21a, "constructive notice" may be established if the serving party presents evidence "that the intended recipient engaged in instances of selective acceptance or refusal of certified mail relating to the case." To take advantage of the exception, the proponent of deemed admissions must adduce additional extrinsic evidence to establish that the defendant was dodging service of the discovery requests.

Is there evidence of non-response? And if so, is such evidence competent? 

Deemed admissions arise automatically if the party to whom they are directed does not respond. Therefore, in order to used deemed admissions in lieu of evidence, the proponent must not only establish fact and date of service, but also of non-response by the other party before the deadline.

That proof requirement is most easily met with a response that affirmatively reflects its untimeliness. If the other party never responded at all, however, the proof requirement is more difficult because the absence of a response could have been caused by other reasons, such as mail having been lost by the post office (probably a dubious claim in most cases given that the rules require certified or registered, rather than regular mail) or the response having been lost or misplaced, or misfiled, in the law office handling the plaintiff's case. Debt collection attorneys typically work in (or for) high-volume law offices, so a certain error rate in processing mail can be expected. Additionally, because of the high volume, it is likely that no one person will handle all incoming mail, with the effect that no one person will know what happened to any one particular piece of mail or a particular fax.  

Unless the court is satisfied that the absence of a certificate of service certifying service of responses to request of admissions is sufficient, the proponent of deemed admissions will have to present sworn testimony as to nonreceipt. For summary judgment purposes, this would be in the form of an affidavit; on occasion of a trial, it would have to be through live testimony, or an affidavit to which the Defendant does not object on hearsay or other grounds.

A plaintiff's attempt to establish nonreceipt is typically subject to challenge on the grounds that the witness/affiant does not have or would not have personal knowledge. For summary judgment purposes, the affiant would have to establish non-receipt based on routine business duty to process and record incoming mail. The attorney of record will hardly be the one to process mail pertaining to hundreds, if not thousands, of pending case and will arguably not be in a position to establish the fact of nonresponse based on absence of a response in the files of the lawfirm that handles litigation for the bank of debt buyer. Additionally, attorney testimony is frowned upon because attorneys are not supposed to appear as witnesses, at least not on substantive matters other than reasonableness and necessity of attorney's fees.

As for establishing non-receipt at trial, it is normally not practical to have a legal secretary, mail processor, file clerk or law firm staffer appear as a witness; and in many cases it is not even practical for the attorney of record to whom all documents are to be mailed under Rule 8) to try the case.

Rule 8 of the TRCP requires that  motions and discovery be directed
 to the attorney of record of a represented party.
Many big debt collection lawfirms use an attorney other than the one that signed the first pleading or even a local appearance attorneys. An attorney who merely handles the trial portion of a case would not be in a position to know that a discovery response was not received (not to mention, never served) merely because she does not actually have the document in her briefcase, or in the on-line folder made available for her use on the law firm's secure website or cloud storage facility. The trial court judge may or may not believe her representation about what was served and received, or not received, but statements of attorneys and argument in court are not generally not admissible evidence, and are accordingly objectionable.


In addition to challenging the existence of deemed admissions on procedural grounds with respect to evidence of service and non-receipt, deemed admissions can also be dealt with in other ways, which are the subject of separate blog posts:


Motion to un-deem deemed admissions / Motion to strike deemed admissions
Are the deemed admissions legally sufficient for judgment?

Rule 198.3 is the basis for a motion to "un-deem" deemed admissions,
although it does not use that term.
Deemed admissions - Trap for the pro se defendant
The problem of deemed admissions - How does it happen and what can be done about it?


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