Ambiguity in the rules on requests for admissions

There is a clear ambiguity in the South Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure regarding requests for admissions–SCRCP 36. I suspect that many denied requests to admit exploit (or take advantage of) this ambiguity.

Akin to the procedural rule addressing responding to pleadings, the rule regarding responding to requests for admissions states that “when good faith requires that a party qualify his answer or deny only a part of the matter of which an admission is requested, he shall specify so much of it as is true and qualify or deny the remainder.” Thus a request for admission that is partially accurate and partially inaccurate requires a more detailed response than “admitted” or “denied.”

However, unlike pleadings–in which there are no limitations to the number of paragraphs one can allege–Rule 36 limits a party to twenty requests for admissions, including subparts (this limitation does not apply to requests to admit the authenticity of documents). A request for admission that basically asks about two distinct facts might qualify as two requests to admit (reducing the full number of requests one can issue) or it can be interpreted as a conjunctive request. To demonstrate this ambiguity, let’s examine the following requests:

  • Request one: “Admit or deny that you have used marijuana and cocaine in the presence of the minor children.”
  • Request two: “Admit or deny that you have used marijuana in the presence of the minor children and admit or deny that you have used cocaine in the presence of the minor children.”

Are these two requests different? I would contend so. The first request should be admitted only if the litigant has used marijuana and cocaine in the presence of the minor children. It also counts as only one request. The second request requires a partial admission if the litigant has used marijuana or cocaine in the presence of the minor children. However it also counts as two requests (essentially, “Admit or deny that you have used marijuana in the presence of the minor children” and “Admit or deny that you have used cocaine in the presence of the minor children.”). If this request was issued as part of twenty separate requests, there is at least one request too many.

One more typically encounters requests like request one than request two. If one doesn’t consider the implications of using “and” rather than “or” when drafting such requests, one is likely to be surprised by the subsequent denials. I have denied a number of requests looking like request one when I would have partially admitted a request that looked like request two. However, I would likely have objected to answering more than ten requests that looked like request two.

In contrast a request, “Admit or deny that you have used marijuana or cocaine in the presence of the minor children,” will get admitted more often than one that uses the conjunction “and.” However that admission won’t uncover which drug was being used in the children’s presence.

When requests for admissions seek information about separate facts, it is better to break the request out into separate requests. Otherwise, the issuing party will not understand what the denial factually entails. Consider the request, “Admit or deny that you have used cocaine in the presence of the minor children.” If one is unconcerned that the litigant may be using cocaine when the children are not present, this is a fine request. However if one is concerned about any relatively recent cocaine use, one should issue a separate request such as “Admit or deny that you have used cocaine within the past [x] years.”

Given the limitation of twenty request for admissions, one needs to be careful about using conjunctions. A denial of a conjuncted request to admit may be ambiguously hiding an adverse fact.

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