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Doctors Medical Center of Modesto v. (Docket No. 20

March 2, 2011

DOCTORS MEDICAL CENTER OF MODESTO, INC., A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
(DOCKET NO. 20) PRINCIPAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, AND DOES 1 THROUGH 25, INCLUSIVE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheila K. Oberto United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S "MOTION FOR DISCOVERY"

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Doctors Medical Center of Modesto, Inc. ("DMC" or "Plaintiff") filed suit against Defendant Principal Life Insurance Company ("Principal" or "Defendant") in Stanislaus County Superior Court alleging claims for breach of contract, breach of an implied contract, negligent misrepresentation, and quantum meruit. (Doc. 1 at 8-27.) According to Plaintiff's complaint, DMC entered into an agreement with Principal to provide medical services at a discounted rate to patients who were participants in a program offered by Principal. (Doc. 1 at 9, ¶¶ 6-7.) DMC provided medical services to four participants of Principal's plan, but Principal failed to pay for the full amount of the services rendered to these participant patients in violation of the agreement between DMC and Principal. (Doc. 1, 11-15, ¶¶ 22-58.) Principal removed the action from Stanislaus County Superior Court on March 12, 2010.

II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On October 14, 2010, Principal served DMC with a First Request for Admissions numbered 1 through 22. (Doc. 20-1, Exhibit A.) Responses to the Request for Admissions ("RFAs") were due on November 18, 2010. On November 18, 2010, one of DMC's counsel, Mr. Greg Lehman, contacted Principal's counsel to request an extension of time to respond to the admissions; Principal's counsel agreed to extend the time to respond until Tuesday, November 23, 2010. (Doc. 20-1, Exhibit B; Doc. 26-1, ¶2.)

On November 24, 2010, DMC served its responses to Principal's RFAs. (See Doc. 20-1, Exhibit C; see also Doc. 26-1, ¶¶ 2-3 ("Defense attorney Christopher Yoo granted an extension until 11/23/2010 to respond to the requests for admissions. The Helton Law Group mailed the legally and factually sufficient responses I drafted to the requests for admissions on 11/24/2010, one day late as I was still waiting for the receipt of the verification from ourclient.").)

Upon review of DMC's responses, Principal's counsel, apparently dissatisfied with the sufficiency of the responses, contacted DMC's counsel on December 10, 2010, regarding RFAs numbers 5 through 8. (Doc. 20-1, ¶ 5.) According to Principal, DMC's counsel agreed to withdraw the objections and supplement the responses. (Doc. 20-1, ¶ 5.) Despite repeated negotiations between the parties' attorneys, Principal maintains that DMC has never supplemented its responses as agreed. (Doc. 20-1, ¶ 7.) Principal requests that the Court deem RFAs 5 through 8 admitted because DMC failed to provide substantive responses. (Doc. 20-1, ¶ 12.)

DMC asserts that it unequivocally denied each of the RFAs and that none of its responses is insufficient. (See Doc. 26, 3:17-18 ("Plaintiff unequivocally denied RFAs 1-4, 5-8 (the only ones sought to be admitted in defendant's motion) and 9-22.").) DMC argues that Principal does not bring the present motion in good faith because it is not seeking to deem all of the RFAs admitted, only numbers 5 through 8. (Doc. 26, 4:3-8.) DMC points out that Principal has never asserted that the responses to the RFAs were late or that they were deemed admitted. DMC asserts this is evidenced by the fact that Principal's counsel continued to ask DMC's counsel for additional responses to RFAs 5 through 8 after the RFAs were served.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide the following with regard to the time to respond to Requests for Admission:

A matter is admitted unless, within 30 days after being served, the party to whom the request is directed serves on the requesting party a written answer or objection addressed to the matter and signed by the party or its attorney. A shorter or longer time for responding may be stipulated to under Rule 29 or be ordered by the court. Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(3). Accordingly, if the 30th day is a weekend or a legal holiday, the response is not due until the next business day. Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(a)(3). An additional three days are allowed for responses where the Requests for Admission are served by mail or other applicable means under Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(b)(2)(C), (D), (E), or (F). Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(d).

The failure to timely respond to Requests for Admission results in automatic admission of the matters requested. Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(3). "No motion to establish admissions is needed because Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36(a) is self executing." Fed. Trade Comm'n v. Medicor LLC, 217 F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1053 (C.D. Cal. 2002); Garcia v. City of Ceres, No. CV F. 08-1720 LJO SKO, 2010 WL 2490917, at *4 n.5 (E.D. Cal. June 16, 2010). Once admitted, the matter is conclusively established "unless the court, on motion, permits the admission to be withdrawn or amended." Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(b).

Where responses have been timely served but are deficient, the requesting party may move for an order to determine the sufficiency of the response. Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(6). "On finding that [a response] does not comply with this rule, the court may order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended [response] be served." Id.

Once admitted due to (1) a complete failure to respond, (2) untimeliness, or (3) insufficiency, an admission cannot be amended or withdrawn except by leave of court. Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(b); 999v. C.I.T. Corp., 776 F.2d 866, 869 (9th Cir. 1985).

B. Untimely Responses to Requests for Admissions

Although the parties dispute the sufficiency of DMC's responses to RFAs numbers 5 through 8, the parties agree that the responses to the RFAs were served late. The responses were initially due 30 days from the date of service of the requests. Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(3). As the RFAs were served on October 14, 2010 (see Doc. 20-1, Exhibit A at 13), the responses were due on Saturday, November 13, 2010. Because the response deadline was a Saturday, the responses were then due on the next business day, which was Monday, November 15, 2010. Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(a)(3). Additionally, because the RFAs were served by mail (see Doc. 20-1, Exhibit A), three additional days were added resulting in a response deadline of November 18, 2010. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(b)(2)(C), 6(d).

On November 18, 2010, the parties stipulated that DMC would have until Tuesday, November 23, 2010, to serve its responses. (See Doc. 20-1, Exhibit B.) Despite that stipulation, the responses were served on November 24, 2010. (Doc. 20-1, Exhibit C at 28; Doc. 26-1, ¶ 3 ("The Helton Law Group mailed the legally and factually sufficient responses I drafted to the requests for admissions on [November 24, 2010,] one day late as I was still waiting for the receipt of the verification from our client.").) The Court finds that DMC's responses to Principal's October 14, 2010, RFAs were untimely.

Despite the self-executing nature of Rule 36 with regard to the automatic admission of untimely responses, the Ninth Circuit has long recognized the district court's discretion to permit late responses to requests for admission. See, e.g., French v. United States, 416 F.2d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 1968) ("A trial judge has discretion to permit a late response to a request for admissions made pursuant to [Rule 36], and thus relieve a party of apparent default.") The language of Rule 36(a) provides a court with discretion to extend the time for responding to requests for admissions, even after the time to respond has expired.*fn1 Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(3) ("A shorter or longer time for responding may be stipulated to under Rule 29 or be ordered by the court.").

Nevertheless, the Court is hesitant to exercise such discretion here. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are not suggestions; they are the rules of practice in federal court. Attorneys admitted to practice have a duty of competence to their clients to understand and appreciate the applicable rules, including those particular to federal court practice. The Court's concern is that exercising discretion to relieve DMC from these admissions undercuts the self-executing nature of Rule 36 and tacitly implies that a party's or its attorney's failure to abide by the rules of practice is of little or no consequence.

On the other hand, discretion also requires the Court to examine competing factors and interests. The Court must weigh the public policy favoring the disposition of cases on their merits rather than on technical violations of procedural rules, consider the scope and purpose of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and assess the particular circumstances presented. DMC asserts that if the RFAs are deemed admitted the result is essentially a case-terminating sanction as the RFAs, especially numbers 5 through 8, "eviscerate" Plaintiff's case and will prevent the matter from being decided on the merits. (See, e.g., Doc. 26, 6:27-28.) The Ninth Circuit has repeatedly held, in a variety of procedural contexts, that the public policy favoring disposition of cases on their merits strongly counsels against dismissal of a case or sanctions that are ultimately case-terminating. See, e.g., In re Phenylpropanolamine Prods. Liab. Litig., 460 F.3d 1217, 1228 (9th Cir. 2006).

Further, the Rules of Civil Procedure explicitly counsel that the rules are to "be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding." Fed. R. Civ. P. 1. Here, the responses were only days late and appear to be due to poor planning on the part of counsel for DMC.*fn2 Allowing a technical violation of this nature to drive the resolution of the matter essentially deprives DMC of a merits-based decision. Construing Rule 36 in this manner would not comport with the scope and purpose of the Rules.

Beyond this, even assuming that DMC is incorrect in its assertion that the admissions are case-terminating, the circumstances of this case weigh in favor relieving DMC of its late responses. The tardiness of the responses is minimal, and Principal has not shown how it was prejudiced by this delay. Additionally, Principal continued to seek supplemental responses to some of the RFAs -- and extended additional time to DMC to provide such responses -- despite that the original responses were untimely. Allowing DMC additional time to provide amended responses to the RFAs can be construed as an agreement to waive the original untimeliness. For these reasons, in its discretion, the Court declines to find that the tardiness of DMC's responses is a sufficient ground to grant Principal's motion that all the RFAs be deemed admitted. See Garber, 237 F.R.D. at 257 (citing Nguyen v. CNA Corp., 44 F.3d 234, 242-43 (4th Cir. 1995) (district court did not abuse discretion in refusing to deem admitted requests for admission when responses were one day late, given minimal delay and circumstances surrounding delay)).

C. Rule 36(a)(6) Motion Regarding the Sufficiency of Responses to RFAs Nos. 5 -8

Principal presents additional argument that the responses to RFAs 5 through 8 are insufficient and should be deemed ...


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