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Neal v. University of North Carolina

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

April 29, 2019

Olivia Neal, Plaintiff,
East Carolina University, Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Olivia Neal was, at one point, a student in Defendant East Carolina University's Masters in Social Work program. After ECU terminated her from the program, she sued and claimed that the University discriminated against her because of a mental health condition and breach the terms of its contract with her. The parties have engaged in discovery over the last several months but disagree over whether Neal has responded appropriately to some of ECU's requests. ECU has now asked the court to compel Neal to provide additional supplemental responses to interrogatories and requests for admission and deem that Neal has admitted one of its requests for admission. After reviewing Neal's responses, the court grants ECU's motion in part and denies it in part.

         I. Analysis

         In general the Federal Rules allow parties to “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). The Rules also provide several tools to conduct discovery, including interrogatories, requests for admission, and requests for production of documents. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 33-36. Inevitably, disagreements arise about whether a party has adequately responded to a discovery request and whether the response complies with the Rules' requirements. In such a circumstance, the requesting party may ask the court to compel the requesting party to comply with the Rules. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a). The party resisting or objecting to discovery “bears the burden of showing why [the motion to compel] should not be granted.” Mainstreet Collection, Inc. v. Kirklands, Inc., 270 F.R.D. 238, 241 (E.D. N.C. 2010). To meet this burden, the non-moving party “must make a particularized showing of why discovery should be denied, and conclusory or generalized statements fail to satisfy this burden as a matter of law.” Id.

         There are a couple of aspects of the Federal Rules that deserve attention at the outset of the court's analysis of this dispute.

         To begin with, the Federal Rules require that a party responding to a document request to do more than just produce those documents that are readily accessible to it. Instead, the responding party must produce responsive documents “in the responding party's possession, custody, or control[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 34(a)(1). The requirement that a party must produce responsive documents that are within its control means that sometimes the responding party will need to obtain documents from third-parties to comply with its discovery obligations. See Poole ex rel. Elliott v. Textron, Inc., 192 F.R.D. 494, 501 (D. Md. 2000) (explaining that a document is within a party's control “[a]s long as the party has the legal right or ability to obtain the documents from another source on demand[.]”). For example, this court has held that “a party has control of documents where a party's attorney or former attorney has control, custody, or possession of those documents.” Beach Mart, Inc. v. L&L Wings, Inc., 302 F.R.D. 396, 411 (E.D. N.C. 2014).

         And it is also important to remember that a party's duties related to its discovery responses are not complete when it serves them. The Federal Rules explain that a party “who has responded to an interrogatory, request for production, or request for admission ... must supplement or correct its … response ... in a timely manner if the party learns that in some material respect the disclosure or response is incomplete or incorrect” unless the supplemental information has otherwise been provided “during the discovery process or in writing.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(e). If a party fails to comply with its duty to supplement its responses, it cannot “use that information … to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial, unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” Id. 37(c)(1).

         With these provisions in mind, the court will turn to each of the disputed discovery requests.

         a. Request for Admission

         In its fifteenth request for admission, ECU asks Neal to admit that she did not turn in a “final learning agreement” assignment by the required deadline. In response, Neal states that “[t]his is not denied; however the deadline was waived and the learning agreement was accepted.” ECU asks the court to address whether Neal's response constitutes an admission.

         Rule 36 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs requests for admission. Unless a request is objectionable, a party must respond by admitting the substance of the request, “specifically deny it[, ] or state in detail why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny it.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(4). A requesting party that is dissatisfied with a response may ask the court to “determine the sufficiency of an answer.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(6). If the court finds that a response does not comply with Rule 36, it may “order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended answer be served.”

         Neal has not admitted the substance of the request, specifically denied it, or explained why she cannot answer it. Instead, she has chosen a hybrid approach of saying that she does not deny the request and then attempts to justify her conduct. Although any reader would understand what Neal is saying, her response does not comply with the Rules of Civil Procedure. Thus, the court orders that Request for Admission is admitted. This does not, of course, prohibit Neal from trying to justify her failure to submit the final learning agreement at a later point in this proceeding.

         b. Interrogatories

         In Interrogatory 3, ECU asks Neal to explain the damages she seeks to recover from the defendants. In her original response, Neal stated that she “has not yet calculated her economic monetary damages” because they depend on an expert report “calculating the value of the MSW degree over” time. Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s First Set of Discovery Reqs. at 5-6, D.E. 28-3. She also claimed that her “non-economic damages are not presently subject to ready calculation.” Id. In a supplemental response served after ECU moved to compel, Neal provided a detailed description of her direct economic damages but continued to maintain that her economic damages were not “subject to ready calculation” and “will be in the discretion of the jury.” Pl.'s Suppl. Resp. to Def.'s First Set of ...

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