As all Illinois litigators should be aware, the failure to timely respond to Requests for Admission made pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 216 could be fatal to an otherwise meritorious case. Since its 1995 decision in Bright v. Dicke, 166 Ill.2d 204, the Supreme Court has required strict compliance with the timing requirements of Rule 216.
The consequence of failing to file and serve opposing counsel with a timely response resulted in the requested facts being admitted. The only exception to allow for late filing was if the responding party could show “good cause” why the response was late. Unfortunately, this often resulted in a meritorious cause of action being lost due to an inadvertent mistake by an attorney or pro se litigant.
As all Illinois litigators should be aware, the failure to timely respond to Requests for Admission made pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 216 could be fatal to an otherwise meritorious case. Since its 1995 decision in Bright v. Dicke, 166 Ill.2d 204, the Supreme Court has required strict compliance with the timing requirements of Rule 216. The consequence of failing to file and serve opposing counsel with a timely response resulted in the requested facts being admitted. The only exception to allow for late filing was if the responding party could show “good cause” why the response was late. Unfortunately, this often resulted in a meritorious cause of action being lost due to an inadvertent mistake by an attorney or pro se litigant. In a dramatic departure from precedent the First District Appellate Court in Vision Point of Sale, Inc. v. Haas, 1-05-2320 (June 23, 2006), affirmed Judge Peter Flynn’s cleverly crafted exception to the strict “good cause” requirements and returned discretion to the Circuit Courts to eliminate the harsh results occasioned by Rule 216.
Application of Rule 216
In Bright v. Dicke, 166 Ill.2d 204 (1995), plaintiff filed an untimely, unsigned, and unverified answer to defendant’s Rule 216 requests. As plaintiff did not provide good cause for filing his untimely, unsigned, and unverified answer to the request, the Supreme Court held that the requests were admitted as a matter of law. The basis for the Supreme Court’s holding was its statement that the “rules of court we promulgated are not aspirational. They are not suggestions. They have the force of law, and the presumption must be that they will be obeyed and enforced as written.” Id. at 210. Three years later the Supreme Court re-iterated the rule that if a party failed to properly respond to a Request to Admit the requested facts would be deemed admitted. P.R.S. International, Inc. v. Shred Pax Corp., 184 Ill.2d 224 (1998). Again, the basis for the ruling was the need for parties to comply with the mandates of the Supreme Court’s rules.
These decisions have been followed assiduously by the Circuit and Appellate Courts for the last 11 years. In Moy v. Ng, 341 Ill. App. 3d 984, 986 (1st Dist. 2003) the First District Appellate Court, following the Supreme Court’s rulings in Bright and P.R.S. International, Inc. as well as its decision in Tires ‘N Tracks, Inc. v. Dominic Fiordirosa Construction Co., 331 Ill. App. 3d 87 (2002), ruled that “[t]he failure to file a timely response to a request to admit facts – including the ‘ultimate’ facts of a case – in accordance with Rule 216(c) results in the admission of those facts. A response denying the facts that is neither timely nor sworn fails to comply with the rule.”
The Supreme Court’s decisions with regard to Supreme Court Rule 216 are based upon the Court’s statements that its rules must be followed. The clear language of Rule 216 states that unless a request is properly responded to within 28 days it is deemed admitted. This is of particular significance and import as the Moy Court stated, “[a]n admission pursuant to a request to admit facts operates as a judicial admission that is considered incontrovertible and has the effect of withdrawing a fact from contention.” The only exception to permitting a respondent to escape the consequences of a late filing was pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 183 which allows for late filing “for good cause shown.” S.Ct. R. 183; Bright v. Dicke, 166 Ill.2d 204 (1995). Prior to the recent decision in Vision Point, courts required a Rule 216 respondent to show good cause why they were late in filing their response to the Rule 216 Request for Admission. Whether good cause was shown was in the discretion of the trial court. See Harris Bank St. Charles v. Weber, 298 Ill. App. 3d 1072, 1083 (1998). Making it more difficult to meet the good cause standard, the appellate courts stated that good cause is not mistake, inadvertence, or neglect, see e.g. Glasco v. Marony, 347 Ill. App. 3d 1069 (2004), nor is it the absence of prejudice to the other party. Bright v. Dicke, 166 Ill.2d 204, 209 (1995).
As a result of the Supreme Court demanding strict compliance with Rule 216 and the high standard to show good cause to permit an untimely answer, many cases were decided not on the actual facts of the case, but as a result of “admissions” made under Rule 216 due to mistakes made by attorneys and pro se litigants. This did not comport with the Supreme Court’s (and all courts) desire and intent to do substantial justice for the parties. However, by basing its rulings in Bright and P.R.S. International, Inc. on the requirement that litigants must comply with its rules, the Supreme Court placed itself in a catch 22 situation. To avoid injustice in adjudicating disputes resolved by admissions made through mistake, inadvertence, or neglect in responding to requests for admission, the Supreme Court would need to issue an opinion reversing its decisions in Bright and P.R.S. International, Inc. The difficulty in this, however, is that it would effectively require the Supreme Court to hold that its rules need not be followed, something it could not do without its rules losing credibility and force.
In the Vision Point case, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn and the First District Appellate Court provided the circuit courts with a method of allowing litigants to file late responses to requests for admission without requiring the Supreme Court to issue an opinion stating that its “rules” need not be followed. In effect, the Vision Point case, discussed in detail below, negates the often unfair and harsh results occasioned by Bright and its progeny.
Vision Point of Sale, Inc. V. Haas
On June 23, 2006, the First District Appellate Court issued its opinion in the case Vision Point of Sale, Inc. v. Haas. In Vision Point, Defendant Haas quit her employment with Vision Point (“Vision”) and began working for co-Defendant Legacy, Inc. (“Legacy”), a direct competitor of Vision. Vision sued Haas and Legacy for tortious interference with business relationships, breach of fiduciary duties, and violation of the Illinois Trade Secrets Act. After a hearing the trial court granted Vision a preliminary injunction and ordered Legacy to purge certain information from its computer systems.1 The court further required Legacy to pay for Vision’s computer experts to oversee the purging of Legacy’s computer systems. After entry of this order Legacy and Haas directed a request for admission to Vision. An attorney for Vision signed the responses that an officer of Vision verified. The responses were sent to defendants, but not filed with the clerk of court.
Legacy and Haas moved to deem the requests admitted as they were not filed with the clerk of court and because they were signed by the attorney, not an officer of Vision. The trial court granted the motion as the responses themselves (as opposed to the verification) were not signed by an officer of Vision and because they were not filed with the clerk of court as required. See Moy v. Ng, 341 Ill. App. 3d 984, 986 (1st Dist. 2003).
After entry of the order deeming the requests admitted Vision petitioned the trial court for a rule to show cause why Legacy should not be held in contempt for failing to pay the computer expert fees as required by the preliminary injunction order. At the hearing on the rule to show cause Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn found that Vision’s failure to comply with Rule 216 was inadvertent and technical and that Legacy maintained a “settled policy of recalcitrance with regard to [complying with the preliminary injunction order.]” Based upon these findings Judge Flynn ruled that the “fair result” would be to allow Vision to file amended answers to the request for admission. In effect Judge Flynn found that Legacy’s failure to comply with the Court’s preliminary injunction order provided “good cause” to allow Vision to file amended responses to the requests for admission.
After denying Legacy and Haas’ motion to reconsider Judge Flynn certified the following question to the First District Appellate Court pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308:
In determining whether ‘good cause’ exists under Supreme Court Rule 183 for the grant of an extension of time to remedy an unintentional noncompliance with a procedural requirement, may the Court take into consideration facts and circumstances of record which go beyond the reason for the noncompliance?
In answering the certified question in the affirmative the First District Appellate Court reviewed Rule 183 and found that it did not, on its face, place any limitations on the factors a court may consider in determining whether a party has demonstrated good cause to allow for late compliance. The appellate court also noted that while the Supreme Court in Bright stated that “mere absence of inconvenience or prejudice to the opposing party is not sufficient to establish good cause under rule 183,” the Bright Court did not set forth all of the factors a trial court could consider when deciding whether to grant an extension of time under Rule 183.
The First District Appellate Court then undertook a brief review of two cases in which courts exercised discretion in allowing late filings to requests for admission, Sims v. City of Alton, 172 Ill. App. 3d 694 (1988) and Bluestein v. Upjohn Co., 102 Ill. App. 3d 672 (1981). In Sims, the appellate court held that “[a] circuit court has wide discretion with regard to the requests to admit and may allow a late filing in order to prevent injustice.” In Bluestein, the trial judge allowed late responses to the request for admission stating that if he “were to find those requests have been admitted by a lawyer’s carelessness, without more, I would be depriving a party of his right to a trial by jury on a basic issue in this case.” The appellate court affirmed this decision based upon the trial court’s “inherent power to prevent injustice.” Bluestein, 102 Ill. App. 3d at 678.
After noting it was unable to find any decision that limited the factors for considering granting an extension of time to the causes for the delay, the First District Appellate Court in Vision Point honed in on the basis for the decisions in Sims and Bluestein: “achieving substantial justice between the parties.” The Vision Point Court then found that Illinois Courts have the authority to consider all factors “that bear on the balance the court must strike between the need for efficient litigation and the interest of achieving substantial justice between the parties.” In remanding the case for hearing as to whether good cause was shown by Vision, the appellate court directed Judge Flynn to “take into consideration any facts bearing on the balance between the need for efficient litigation in full compliance with court rules and the interests of achieving substantial justice on the merits for the parties. The court need not restrict its attention to the causes for the delay in the responses to the requests to admit.”
By directing trial courts to take into consideration “any facts” bearing on the need to balance strict compliance with procedural rules and the need to achieve substantial justice on the merits, the Vision Point Court effectively directed trial courts to find a reason to allow for late responses to requests for admission so long as there is not prejudice to the other party and the reasons for the late filing are not egregious. Most importantly, the reason to allow the untimely response need not be related to the late response, but anything that occurred during the litigation or, perhaps, between the parties prior to commencement of litigation. By reaching such a result the Appellate Court has placed the need to “do justice” over the need for strict compliance with procedural rules.
This view of interpreting and applying the Supreme Court’s rules is in compliance with other changes to these rules promulgated by the Supreme Court. As an example, Supreme Court Rules 213 (f) and (g) governing the disclosure of trial witness were amended effective July 1, 2002. The goal of the rules governing disclosure of witnesses was to avoid trial by ambush. Prior to amendment Rule 213 (f) and (g) required comprehensive disclosures. Cases interpreting this rule held that anything not explicitly disclosed would be barred at trial. As a result, witnesses whose anticipated testimony was not precisely and comprehensively disclosed were barred from testifying at trial. This led to the unfortunate result of many trials being decided on motions in limine seeking to bar certain witnesses whose testimony or qualifications were not exactingly disclosed instead of the merits of the cases. In amending the rule the Supreme Court relaxed the disclosure requirements except for retained experts. More importantly the Court added sub-paragraph (k) to the rule which directed trial courts to liberally construe the rule “to do substantial justice between or among the parties.”
The overall “theme” of the decision in Vision Point of Sale, Inc. v. Haas is the desire to do “substantial justice” for the parties. While the Vision Point decision removes an effective method for diligent counsel to narrow factual questions and shorten litigation in frivolous cases, particularly those brought by pro se litigants, the return to doing substantial justice by placing substance over procedure is a welcome one.
© Stanley A. Kitzinger 2006
1 N.B. To grant the preliminary injunction the Court would necessarily have found that Vision likely would prevail in its case after a full hearing on the merits, i.e. that Vision would ultimately prevail in the litigation.