NO SANCTION FOR DENYING “MERITS-PRECLUSIVE” REQUESTS FOR ADMISSION, THEN LATER ADMITTING THE ISSUES

Medina v. Zuniga
Supreme Court of Texas, No. 17-0498 (April 26, 2019)
Opinion by Justice Brown (linked here)
We’ve all seen them. Most of us have probably tried to use them ourselves. That clever, comprehensive list of requests for admissions that, if admitted (or ignored) by the opponent, completely win the case for our side. But, the Supreme Court now tells us, while “this is standard practice for many litigators,” “[t]hat is not how our system works.” While requests for admission are useful to simplify trials by eliminating matters about which there is no real controversy, they “are no method for trying the merits,” and attempting to use them in that way raises serious due process concerns.

Zuniga sued Medina for negligence and gross negligence in a truck/pedestrian accident. At the very outset of the case, Zuniga “sought to litigate the entire case in one fell swoop of discovery,” serving “a battery of requests [asking] Medina to admit his negligence and complete responsibility in causing the accident.” Medina denied the requests. But at trial he conceded ordinary negligence, for strategic reasons, while continuing to contest gross negligence. Zuniga then sought an award of attorney’s fees under Rule 215.4(b) for Medina’s having denied the requests for admission regarding ordinary negligence, causing Zuniga to have to prepare to prove negligence at trial. The trial court granted the request, and the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court of Texas, however, took a different view. “Requests for admission,” the Court said, “are a tool, not a trapdoor.” They were “never intended to be used as a demand upon a plaintiff or defendant to admit that he had no cause of action or ground of defense.” To deploy requests for admissions in such a “merits-preclusive” way, the Court explained, would risk violating constitutional guarantees of due process. So, a party may deny such “merits-preclusive” requests, without fear of sanction, simply because he is entitled to contest his opponent’s claims or defenses on the merits. “Just as a defendant may answer the claims against him with a general denial, … he may also deny a merits-based request for admission for which the other party bears the burden of proof. The very nature of the request provides the respondent ‘good reason’ for failing to admit” such a request. The Supreme Court therefore reversed and rendered judgment for Medina on this issue.

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