Many rules of civil procedure are liberally construed to prevent the “oops!” or “gotcha!” tactic if a rule is not perfectly complied with. Courts are hesitant to allow another party to prevail merely because its opposition committed a technical or procedural error. Technical wins are generally not favored, as long as there is a reasonable / excusable basis to justify why the technical error occurred. Courts want parties to prevail on the merits of their dispute and not on who wins a procedural error.
An example of this general philosophy is the case of Well Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Shelton, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1526a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017), where the lender in a mortgage foreclosure action received requests for admissions, a common discovery tool to get a party to admit or deny certain facts. Those admissions of fact help narrow issues for purposes of trial because they narrow the facts in dispute since they serve as stipulated facts. Based on these admissions, a party can move for summary judgment based on the lack of any genuine material fact in dispute.
The lender’s counsel, due to a calendaring error, failed to respond to the request for admissions for well over a year. During this time, discovery continued. The lender’s counsel realized the error (over a year later) and filed a motion in the court for the court’s permission to file a late response based on excusable neglect (the calendaring error). The lender also claimed that many of the requests in the requests for admissions would have been denied by evidence already in the record and filed with the lender’s verified complaint. After the lender filed this motion, the debtor moved for summary judgment arguing that the lender’s failure to timely respond to the request for admissions should be deemed an admission as to all of its requests. The court agreed and granted summary judgment (based on the technical error of not timely responding to the request for admissions). A technical win!
On appeal, the Fifth District reversed stating that Florida favors disputes to be decided on the merits rather than technical rules. In this case, the court found that even though the lender failed to respond to the request for admissions for well over a year, (1) discovery continued in the case, (2) there was evidence in the record contradicting some or all of the requests, (3) the debtor did not move for summary judgment until after the lender filed a motion for permission to file a late response, and (4) the debtor could not prove how it was prejudiced by the late admissions. Wells Fargo Bank supra (“In sum, the trial court erred in entering summary judgment based on the technical admissions because there was record evidence contradicting the admissions. In addition, the Sheltons failed to make a sufficient showing of how granting relief from the admissions would have caused prejudice.”)
By no means am I in favor of committing or excusing technical errors, and by no means am I in favor of technical victories. Waiting well over a year to try to respond to requests for admissions is ridiculous. (Also, the opposing party should have inquired as to the status of the admissions versus waiting over a year to try to obtain a technical victory.) A calendaring error makes sense in this case because there really was no upside for the lender to not timely respond to these admissions – they were probably all easy denials. There was no strategic value to delay. But, over a year is a LONG time. And, the court provides no substantive discussion as to when a party is prejudiced by a technical error versus when a party is not. For instance, what if the debtor had moved for summary judgment before the lender realized it neglected to respond to the admissions? What if the parties were on a trial docket? What if the denials to the admissions were not so readily apparent from the record evidence? And, what if the debtor’s counsel tried to get the lender’s counsel to respond to the admissions months earlier?
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