January 29, 2014
MARY J. ARMBRUST, Defendant-below/Appellant,
CAPITAL ONE BANK, USA NA, Plaintiff-below/Appellee.
Submitted: October 15, 2013
Upon Appeal from the Court of Common Pleas – AFFIRMED
Fred S. Silverman Judge
1. This is an appeal by a pro se litigant from a default judgment entered in the Court of Common Pleas after she failed to comply with discovery. Appellant argues the default was too extreme for her "failure to understand and comply with discover [sic] order(s)." Here, the court must consider whether the trial court properly held that Appellant willfully and consciously disregarded court orders and rules, thereby justifying the default judgment.
2. Appellee filed its debt action in the Court of Common Pleas on October 18, 2010 to collect a $10, 573.15 debt. Appellant answered on November 19, 2010, admitting her residence but responding "Unknown and therefore denied" to the other allegations. The case went to trial on January 27, 2012. At trial, Appellee primarily relied on Appellant's testimony. Appellant denied all activity related to the debt, and the trial court ruled from the bench against Appellee for failing to prove its case.
3. The trial court, however, granted Appellee leave to file a motion to re-open if it could produce evidence that Appellant had lied at trial, which Appellee filed on March 6, 2012. On April 13, 2012, the trial judge heard the motion. At the hearing, the trial judge found Appellant was "dancing on the head of a pin" and had undermined the judicial system by being less than candid. The trial judge granted the motion, began the proceedings anew, and recused because he found Appellant was "disingenuous before the court" and not "forthright under oath."
4. On May 10, 2012, Appellee mailed Appellant requests for admission. The obvious motive was to obtain evidence refuting Appellee's trial testimony, which the trial judge, as mentioned, found "disingenuous." Appellant did not respond, so Appellee filed a motion for summary judgment on June 7, 2012 and a supplement on June 18, 2012. The motion was heard and denied on June 29, 2012. At the hearing, Appellee denied receiving Appellant's Requests for Admissions. The court ordered Appellant to respond by July 30, 2012, and if she failed to do so, they would be deemed admitted.
5. On July 30, 2012, Appellant hand-delivered her responses. Every response was "Objection - immaterial." In response, Appellee filed its Motion for Relief pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 36, which requires each answer to "specifically deny the matter or set forth in detail the reasons why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny the matter." The hearing was held August 31, 2012, but Appellant did not appear. Nevertheless, the trial court denied Appellee's motion to deem the requests admitted, but granted a motion to compel and ordered Appellant to serve adequate responses by September 13, 2012.
6. On September 11, 2012, Appellant hand-delivered her amended responses. Appellant again objected to each request stating, "This request is improper as it is immaterial to this debt collection case. There is no answer that would support whether Defendant executed or delivered an agreement with Plaintiff or whether Defendant used one of the two credit card numbers Plaintiff alleges belongs to Defendant in its unsubstantiated claim."
7. On September 25, 2012, Appellee filed a Motion for Judgment based on Appellant's repeated failure to properly answer discovery. A new presiding judge heard the motion on October 5, 2012. The court found the discovery requests were "very carefully crafted and very specific to the issues in this case." The court allowed Appellee explain each request's purpose, line-by-line, and gave Appellant a third opportunity to respond. Even then, Appellant's response was merely, "some of these things on here have absolutely no ... bearing as to the debt matter."
8. On October 17, 2012, the trial court granted judgment. Again, the court specified "the Admissions are carefully crafted to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." The trial court rejected Appellant's repeated insistence that the admissions were immaterial and found her objections lacked specific denials as required. While recognizing that entering judgment is an extreme discovery violation sanction, the court found Appellant "willfully and consciously disregarded this Court's Orders and has refused to engage in the discovery process as required by the Rules."
9. Appellant appealed, essentially alleging three errors: 1) the trial court improperly based its decision on the "whole of the proceeding" rather than looking only to the events after the case was re-opened on April 13, 2012; 2) Appellee failed to establish an agreement existed with Appellant; and 3) the dismissal was too punitive because Appellant timely responded and properly objected to immaterial discovery.
10. This appeal is on the record, not de novo. The standard of review is whether the trial court erred as a matter of law, and "whether the factual findings made by the trial judge are sufficiently supported by the record and are a product of an orderly and logically deductive process." If there was no error of law and evidence supports the trial judge's findings, the appellate court must affirm.
11. While a default judgment is the ultimate sanction for a discovery violation and highly disfavored, as a matter of law, a default judgment is sustainable if the non-moving party willfully and consciously disregarded court orders.Accordingly, the only issue here is whether the record sufficiently supports the trial court 's finding that default judgment was appropriate because Appellant willfully and consciously disregarded court orders.
12. Drejka v. Hitchens Tire Service set-out six factors for determining if dismissal was an abuse of discretion where a party disobeyed the court's orders: 1) the extent of the party's personal responsibility; 2) the prejudice to the adversary caused by the failure to respond to discovery; 3) a history of dilatoriness; 4) whether the conduct of the party or the attorney was willful or in bad faith; 5) the effectiveness of sanctions other than dismissal, which entails an analysis of alternative sanctions; and 6) the meritoriousness of the claim or defense.
13. The Delaware Supreme Court recently issued four opinions the same day revisiting Drejka, and the balance between the strong policy favoring deciding cases on the merits and the importance of maintaining the courts' litigation schedules. The Court reversed three decisions entering judgment after a party's failure to meet a deadline. The Court based its reversals on failure to attempt lesser sanctions,  failure to consider the claim's merit and whether the delay caused prejudice,  and the trial court's refusal to step in when asked to resolve discovery difficulties that could have avoided the ultimate dismissal.
14. Adams v. Aidoo, the fourth case, affirmed the dismissal that followed two motion to compel hearings where the tr ial co urt ex plai ned t he pl aint iff's discovery obligations and an additional three day postponement in granting the dismissal to give the plaintiff one last chance to comply. Adams held the trial court correctly balanced the Drejka factors. Most persuasive for dismissal were plaintiff's personal responsibility and the apparentness that lesser sanctions would not have induced compliance. That took into consideration the plaintiff's continuous willful refusal. Adams, like Appellant here, "simply did not think she should have to reveal information that she considered to be private and irrelevant."
15. First, like Adams, Appellant here is personally responsible for her failure. She has no one to blame for the dismissal other than herself. Second, despite different judges clarifying and declaring her discovery obligations, including Appellee's line- by-line justification of each admission's purpose,  Appellant continues to insist her objections were reasonable. That is incorrect. More importantly, even if the trial judges' rulings had been wrong, Appellant was not free to ignore or disobey them as she saw fit. In an orderly justice system, someone has to have final say over procedural matters. That may even entail ordering litigants to do things with which they disagree. Third, Appellant's recalcitrance has put Appellees to unnecessary expense and delay in attempting to collect $10, 000. Fourth, as to the defense's merit, the limited record includes substantial circumstantial evidence linking Appellant to the alleged, unpaid credit charges. Moreover, Appellant's unwillingness to provide straight answers to basic questions suggests that had she been forthcoming, as ordered, her answers would have helped prove Appellant's case. Fifth, after Appellant directly disobeyed the court's first order, and more so after she disobeyed the second one on pain of dismissal, the trial court had a reasonable basis for concluding that Appellant's dilatory evasions should not be characterized as unintentional and in good faith.
16. On review, the only Drejka factor that arguably cuts in Appellant's favor is the trial judge did not impose monetary sanctions before granting judgment. But, given this case's nature, a relatively small debt action against a pro se defendant, financial sanctions make little sense.
17. In summary, the trial court's finding that Appellant "willfully and consciously disregarded this Court's Orders and has refused to engage in the discovery process as required by the Rules" is supported by sufficient evidence. Taking the entire record and the Drejka suite of cases into account, this case falls under Adams. Therefore, it cannot be said that the trial court's granting judgment against Appellant, even if extreme, was an abuse of discretion.
For the above reasons, the Court of Common Pleas' judgment is AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.