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Ball-Rice v. Board of Education of Prince George's County

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

May 24, 2013

DARLENE BALL-RICE, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHARLES B. DAY, Magistrate Judge.

Before this Court are Defendant's Motion Regarding The Sufficiency Of Plaintiff's Responses To Defendant's Requests For Admission ("Motion for Admissions") (ECF No. 51), Defendant's Motion For Sanctions (ECF No. 52), and Defendant's Motion To Strike As Untimely Plaintiff's Opposition To Defendant's Motion For Rule 37 Sanctions ("Motion to Strike") (ECF No. 56). The Court has reviewed Defendant's Motions, related memoranda, and applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Admissions, GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Sanctions, and DENIES Defendant's Motion to Strike as moot.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her race and sex by creating a hostile work environment and by retaliating against her after she complained about discrimination in the work place, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 67-90 (ECF No. 13). The majority of the allegations stem from the conduct of the thenprincipal of Largo High School, Angelique Simpson-Marcus. Pl.'s Opp. Br. 1-2 (ECF No. 55). On August 7, 2012, Defendant served Plaintiff with its First Request For Production Of Documents. Def. Mot. to Compel Ex. 1 (ECF No. 44). Plaintiff failed to timely serve responses to the request. Def.'s Br. 2 (ECF No. 52-1). On September 21, 2012, Plaintiff was deposed by Defendant. Id. Plaintiff stated at the deposition that she had in her possession the following documents which Defendant claims are responsive to its document request:

1. Emails to William Barnes, Pamela Harris, and Plaintiff's union representative regarding the allegations set forth in her complaint.
2. Documents from Largo High School which Plaintiff copied because "I felt I would need later, " referencing the instant litigation.

Def.'s Br. 3. Defendant requested that Plaintiff provide these documents during the deposition and made several additional attempts to obtain them afterwards. Id. While Plaintiff produced some documents after the deposition, the above-referenced emails and documents were not produced until February 28, 2013, after Defendant filed a Motion to Compel. Def.'s Br. 3-4.

Defendant filed the pending Motion for Sanctions on March 13, 2013, requesting that Plaintiff not be permitted to use the above-referenced documents at trial and that it be granted attorneys' fees and costs for obtaining their production. Def.'s Mot. 1 (ECF No. 52). Plaintiff filed her response to the Motion for Sanctions on April 21, 2013, twenty-two days late. Pl.'s Opp. Mot. 1 (ECF No. 55). Defendant has filed a Motion to Strike Plaintiff's opposition brief because of its untimeliness. Pl.'s Mot. 1 (ECF No. 56).

Subsequent to Plaintiff's deposition, Defendant served her with Requests for Admission based on her testimony. Def.'s Br. 1 (ECF No. 51-2). Defendant alleges that Plaintiff's answers were in violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36 and requests that they be ordered admitted and that Plaintiff pays its costs and fees. Id. Plaintiff never filed a response in opposition to Defendant's Motion for Admissions.

DISCUSSION

I. Plaintiff's Responses To The Requests For Admission Were In Violation Of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 36 And Will Be Deemed Admitted.

Defendant moves the Court to deem admitted certain of Plaintiff's responses to its Request for Admissions because they were legally insufficient. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36 allows any party to serve on another party requests to admit the truth of facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions relating to matters within the scope of discovery. Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(1). The purpose of the Rule is to "narrow the array of issues before the court, and thus expedite both the discovery process and the resolution of the litigation." Adventis, Inc. v. Consolidated Prop. Holdings, Inc., 124 F.Appx. 169, 172 (4th Cir. 2005); Lynn v. Monarch Recovery Mgmt., Inc., 285 F.R.D. 350, 363 (D. Md. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). The two possible sanctions for a violation of Rule 36 are to order the matter admitted or to order the responding party to serve an amended answer. Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(6). It is often appropriate to order the matter admitted where a party responds to a Rule 36 request in bad faith or does so evasively. See Louis v. Martinez, 5:08-CV-151, 2011 WL 1832808, at *3 (N.D. W.Va. May 13, 2011) (deeming answers admitted where defendants "abused the discovery process" with multiple evasive and meritless responses); House v. Giant of Maryland LLC, 232 F.R.D. 257, 262 (E.D. Va. 2005) ("Gamesmanship in the form of non-responsive answers, vague promises of a future response, or quibbling objections can result in the request being deemed admitted."); Poole ex rel. Elliott v. Textron, Inc., 192 F.R.D. 494, 499 (D. Md. 2000) ("Failure to adhere to the plain language of this statute requires that the fact in question be admitted.").

If the responding party chooses not to admit a requested item, that party must specifically deny it or state in detail why it cannot admit or deny it. Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(4). "A denial must fairly respond to the substance of the matter; and when good faith requires that a party qualify an answer or deny only a part of a matter, the answer must specify the part admitted and qualify or deny the rest." Id. ; see also 8B Charles Alan Wright et al., Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 2260 (3d ed. 2013) ("It is expected that denials will be forthright, specific, and unconditional. If a response is thought insufficient as a denial, the court may treat it as an admission."). If the party is asserting that it cannot admit or deny due to lack of knowledge or information, it must state that it has first made a reasonable inquiry into the matter. Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(4). A plain statement that a party is unable to admit or deny without any further explanation violates Rule 36. See Wright et al., supra, § 2261 ("A general statement that [a party] can neither admit nor deny, unaccompanied by reasons, will be held an insufficient response, and the court may either take the matter as admitted or order a further answer.").

Plaintiff never responded to Defendant's Motions for Admissions, which is therefore unopposed. Even when a motion is unopposed, the reviewing court must ensure that the moving party is entitled to the relief that it seeks. See Cambridge Capital Grp. v. Pill, 20 F.Appx. 121, 123 (4th Cir. 2001) (refusing to automatically grant an unopposed motion for summary judgment without examining whether moving party met its burden under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56); Custer v. Pan Am. Life Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 410, 416 (4th Cir. 1993) (same). Nonetheless, it should be evident that Plaintiff's failure to oppose the motion leaves Defendant's arguments uncontested in such a way that may affect the ultimate outcome. Courts examining motions regarding the sufficiency of a Rule 36 response may deny relief where the responding party can provide some explanation that contextualizes a challenged response. See, e.g., Lynn, 285 F.R.D. at 366-67 (declining to sanction a party who explained in its opposition motion that it had failed to appreciate a nuance in the moving party's request and then supplemented its response). Further, a party's overall conduct during the discovery process may be relevant in determining whether an insufficient answer to a Rule 36 request for admission should be deemed admitted. See United States v. Kenealy, 646 F.2d 699, 702-03 (1st Cir. 1981) (affirming the admission of a responding party's responses due to its "opaque, generalized, and tardy denials, [and] their failure to oppose the government's request for this relief."); Asea, Inc. v. Southern P. Transp. Co., 669 F.2d 1242, 1247 (9th Cir. 1981) (affirming the admission of a responding party's responses where that party had caused a "year of volatile and acrimonious fighting" during discovery). Here, Plaintiff provided no explanations of her answers in either her original response to Defendant's requests or in an opposition brief. Plaintiff's lack of responsiveness and tardiness throughout the discovery process creates a negative inference against her in determining the sanction to apply for a violation of Rule 36. The Court will take each request for admission in turn.

A. Request for Admission No. 4

Defendant's Request for Admission No. 4 states: "Admit that you only heard Principal Simpson-Marcus make inappropriate comments about you on two occasions." Def.'s Br. 6. Plaintiff's answer was simply, "Denied." Id. Defendant argues that this response was inappropriate in light of ...


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