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Griego v. Douglas

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 5, 2019

MICHAEL GRIEGO, Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Estate of ALEC J. JARAMILLO, Deceased, ANDREW JARAMILLO and TERESA ROMO,
v.
LABERTA M. DOUGLAS, Personal Representative of the Estate of RUSSELL E. DOUGLAS, and STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY

          ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO COMPEL AND DENYING MOTION FOR PROTECTIVE ORDER AND AWARDING PLAINTIFF GRIEGO REASONABLE EXPENSES

          THE HONORABLE JERRY H. RITTER U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff, Michael Griego's Motion to Compel Discovery Responses and Request for Sanctions [Doc. 159] and Laberta M. Douglas' Motion for Protective Order [Doc. 162]. As explained below, the Court will grant the motion to compel and deny the motion for protective order and will award reasonable expenses to plaintiff Griego.

         BACKGROUND

         Alec Jaramillo [“Alec”] died as a result of a collision between his motorcycle and a car driven by Russell Douglas [“Russell”]. See Complaint for Wrongful Death and Loss of Consortium [Doc. 24]. Michael Griego [“Griego”], as personal representative for Alec's estate, brought a wrongful death claim against Russell and his insurer State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. [Doc. 1-2.] Through an amended complaint, Alec's parents Andrew Jaramillo and Teresa Romo joined the case and brought additional claims for loss of consortium. [Doc. 24.] Before Alec's parents joined as parties, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynch entered a discovery order allowing "[a] maximum of 50 interrogatories, 50 requests for admission, and 50 requests for production [] by each party to any other party." [Doc. 17, p. 1]. No. subsequent order amended the discovery limit. During the pendency of the case, Russell died, prompting the substitution of his widow Laberta Douglas [“Laberta”] as personal representative of the estate. [Docs. 29 and 30.]

         Andrew Jaramillo served interrogatories on Laberta on September 19, 2017 [See Doc. 49], on December 28, 2017, [See Doc. 57] and again on September 27, 2018. [See Doc. 141.] On December 7, 2018 [see Doc. 146], Griego served twenty-six requests for admissions to Laberta. [Doc. 159, p. 1.][1] Griego included with each of his requests for admissions two or three interrogatories to be answered in the event of a denial. [See Doc. 160-4, pp. 1]. Laberta denied the first eighteen[2] with a general objection that Laberta cannot "admit or deny specialized medical assertions as established facts." [Doc. 159, p. 1.] Laberta refused to answer any of the interrogatories because she perceived that they exceeded the number allowed by the discovery order. [Doc. 159, p. 2].

         Griego filed Plaintiff, Michael Griego's Motion to Compel Discovery Responses and Request for Sanctions [Doc. 159] on January 22, 2019.[3] Griego asked that the Court deem his unanswered Requests for Admissions 1-19 to be admitted or, in the alternative, order Laberta to fully respond to the associated interrogatories, and asked that the Court award him his attorney fees for the Motion. [Doc. 159, p. 4.] Laberta filed a response [Doc. 160] on February 5, 2019. No. reply was filed and so briefing is complete. [Doc. 166].

         Contemporaneously and addressing the same dispute, Laberta filed Laberta M. Douglas' Motion for Protective Order [Doc. 162] on February 6, 2019. Laberta asked the Court to find that Griego's interrogatories violate the discovery order and to rule that she does not have to admit to medical conclusions without "the requisite medical knowledge", and asked for an award of attorney fees for her motion. [Doc. 162, p. 4.] Griego filed a response [Doc. 164] on February 21, 2019. Laberta filed a reply [Doc. 167] on March 7, 2019, completing the briefing. [Doc. 168].

         THE ISSUES TO BE DECIDED

         The parties raise the following four primary issues: I. Whether the Court should deem Griego's Requests for Admissions 1-19 admitted? II. Whether the Court should compel Laberta to fully respond to Griego's Requests for Admissions? III. Whether the Court should compel Laberta to respond to Griego's interrogatories corresponding to their requests for admissions? IV. Whether the Court should award either party reasonable attorneys' fees for their respective motions?

         THE APPLICABLE LAW

         The General Scope of Discovery

         The general rule is that "[p]arties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case". Fed.R.Civ.p. 26(b)(1). Information "need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable." Id. The court cannot allow discovery outside the scope of Rule 26(b)(1). F. R. Civ. p. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii).

         Under what circumstances if any does a federal district court have authority to deem admitted a party's requests for admissions?

         Rule 36(a)(1) allows for a party to serve on any other party a request that the party admit “the truth of any matters within the scope of Rule 26(b)(1) relating to ... facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either....” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(1)(A). A court may only deem admitted a request for admission if it finds that the objection to answering is unjustified, orders an answer to be served, and then finds that the answer does not comply with Rule 36(a)(6). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(6) ("The requesting party may move to determine the sufficiency of an answer or objection. Unless the court finds an objection justified, it must order than an answer be served. On finding that an answer does not comply with this rule, the court may order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended answer be served. The Court may defer its final decision until a pretrial conference of a specified time before trial.").

         Under what circumstances if any does a federal district court have authority to order a party to fully respond to request for admissions?

         A court may order a party to fully respond to a request for admission if it finds that the party's objection to the request is unjustified. Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(6). "Rule 36(a)(6) provides a means for judicial determination of the sufficiency of an answer or objection on motion of the requesting party. Courts do not address the sufficiency of an answer unless they first find an asserted objection invalid or improper. A justified objection may eliminate the need for an answer…. In the absence of a justified objection, an answer must be served." Bowers v. Mortgage Elec. Registration Sys., 2012 WL 2798801, at *2 (D. Kan. July 9, 2012).

If a matter is not admitted, the answer must specifically deny it or state in detail why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny it. 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. The answering party may assert lack of knowledge or information as a reason for failing to admit or deny only if the party states that it has made reasonable inquiry and that the information it knows or can readily obtain is insufficient to enable it to admit or deny.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(a)(4). "A response to a request for admission may be considered insufficient where the response is not 'specific' or where the explanation for a failure to admit or deny is not 'in detail' as required by Rule 36(a)(4). Thymes v. Verizon Wireless, Inc., 2017 WL 4534838, at *4 (D.N.M. Feb. 9, 2017). "[A] respondent must, if he or she cannot admit or deny, state in detail why not." S.E.C. v. Goldstone, 300 F.R.D. 505, 523 (D.N.M. 2014). A party's provision of information in another form does not relieve it of the obligation to comply with Rule 36(a)(4). See Brockmann v. Bd. of County Comm'rs of County of Shawnee, 404 Fed.Appx. 271, 288 (10th Cir. 2010) (unpublished).

         Under what circumstances if any does a federal district court have authority to order a party to respond to interrogatories corresponding to another party's requests for admissions?

         A federal district court may compel a party to answer interrogatories where the party has failed to completely answer or provide meritorious objections to the interrogatories. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 33(b); Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(3)(B)(iii). There does not appear to be any separate rule of law applicable to interrogatories that correspond to requests for admissions. However, at least one out of jurisdiction case discusses the propriety of using interrogatories in conjunction with requests for admissions, given the distinct purpose of each instrument. See Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh v. Donaldson Co., Inc., No. CV 10-4948 JRT/AJB, 2013 WL 12155269, at *2 (D. Minn. Oct. 1, 2013) (“Admissions requests are not properly used as a means to establish facts that are in dispute or answer questions of law. Rather, the purpose of requests for admissions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a) is to “expedite trial by eliminating the necessity of proving undisputed and peripheral issues.” Moreover, admissions requests are not a discovery device and the court is not authorized to determine the accuracy of a denial to an admissions request or to determine the sufficiency of responses provided to corresponding interrogatories and document requests. In this instance the court is persuaded that [Defendant] is inappropriately attempting to compel the responding parties to adopt [Defendant]'s position on disputed operative facts and thereby ratify the legal conclusions that Federal attaches to those facts. [Defendant]'s effort to re-characterize the admissions requests as seeking ‘notice of injury' is unavailing and the motion to compel is denied.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

         Under what circumstances if any does a federal district court have authority to award reasonable attorney fees for a motion to compel or a motion for protective order?

         The same expense award rules apply to motions to compel as to motions for protective order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(A); see Fed. R. Civ. p. 26(c)(3). Under Rule 37(a)(5)(A), the Court must award expenses against the nonmovant or its attorney if such a motion is granted unless the nonmovant's position was substantially justified or other circumstances make an award of expenses unjust. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(A). If the motion is denied the Court instead must award expenses against the movant. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(B). If a motion to compel or for protective order is granted in part and denied in part, the Court may apportion the parties' reasonable expenses. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(C). Thus, “[t]he great operative principle of Rule 37(a)(5) is that the loser pays, ” In re Lamey, 2015 WL 6666244 at *4 (D.N.M. 2015) ...


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