PA RQA Ruling
PA SUPERIOR COURT CLARIFIES SCOPE OF REQUESTS FOR ADMISSIONS AND GROUNDS FOR WITHDRAWAL OF ADMISSIONS
(PHILADELPHIA, October 19, 2011) The Pennsylvania Superior Court has disapproved the use of requests for admissions to turn legal conclusions and opinions into fact, and has encouraged trial courts to permit the withdrawal of opinions under certain circumstances.
In Estate of John W. Borst v. Edward Stover Sr. Testamentary Trust, 30 A.3d 1207 (Pa. Super. October 19, 2011, Donohue, J.), the Superior Court clarified the permissible scope of requests for admissions pursuant to P.R.C.P. 4014. In so doing, the Court emphasized that requests for admissions may not be used to gain the admission of opinions or of conclusions of law as a basis for summary judgment, and that withdrawal of admissions should be allowed in the interests of substantial justice where there is no real prejudice to the party who gained the admissions.
In Estate of Borst, the Court reversed a Dauphin County trial judge’s grant of summary judgment based in large part on unanswered requests for admissions. The case started as an ejectment action brought by the Stover Trust, seeking ejectment of various month-to-month tenants and sub-lessees at a campground. The issue turned in large part on whether certain language in Stover’s will, directing that the tenants be permitted to purchase parts of the property, was precatory (i.e., expressing a wish but not a command) or mandatory.
The Trust served the tenants with requests for admissions regarding the language of the will, and the tenants failed to respond. P.R.C.P. 4014 provides that each matter of which an admission is requested is deemed admitted unless a denial or objection is served within 30 days.
The Trust then filed for summary judgment based in large part on the lack of issues of fact due to the admissions. The tenants responded to the Trust’s motion and actually served nunc pro tunc responses to the requests for admissions (ironically enough, the late responses were served on the day the court entered its order granting summary judgment in favor of the Trust).
The issue on appeal was framed as follows: “Whether the trial court abused its discretion by relying on defective requests for admission which were beyond the permissible scope of P.R.C.P. 4014, or by failing to consider the untimely filed answer to the requests which ultimately led to a granting of summary judgment where genuine issues of material fact existed?”
The Court cited with approval the following language from Dwight v. Girard Med. Ctr., 623 A.2d 913 (Pa. Commw. 1993):
“Withdrawal of admissions should be granted where upholding the admission would practically eliminate any presentation of the merits of the case; where withdrawal would prevent manifest injustice; and where the party who obtained the admissions failed to prove that withdrawal would result in prejudice to that party… Furthermore, if the subject matter of the admissions is broad and far-reaching, a court should permit withdrawal in the absence of bad faith or substantial prejudice. Moreover, requests for admissions must call for matters of fact rather than legal opinions and conclusions. Since conclusions of law are not within the permissible scope of requests for admissions under Rule 4014, those statements in the requests for admissions which constitute conclusions of law are not properly before the court”. Id at p. 916.
In a footnote, the Court set forth the following cautionary note: “[O]ur holding in this case does not mean that we condone noncompliance with the Rules of Civil Procedure… “We fully acknowledge that under appropriate circumstances, deemed admissions may support a grant of summary judgment.” (Citing Stimmler v. Chestnut Hill Hosp., 602 Pa. 539, 564 n. 18, 981 A.2d 145, 160 n. 18 (2009).
It is important to remember that the Superior Court’s ruling in Estate of Borst, strictly speaking, may be limited to cases in which a trial court has treated admissions as to legal conclusions as if they were admissions of fact, in ruling on a motion for summary judgment. In the context of such a motion, it is the court’s responsibility to resolve issues of law, where there are no genuine issues as to material facts. In this case, the unanswered requests for admissions concerned interpretation of the will, which is actually a legal issue to be ruled on by the court. Additionally, practitioners are cautioned that the 30-day response requirement of P.R.C.P. 4014 should be complied with; where it is necessary to serve untimely responses, a motion for leave to respond nunc pro tunc or a motion to withdraw admissions should be considered.