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Armbrust v. Capital One Bank, USA NA

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

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.[1] 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."[2] If there was no error of law and evidence supports the trial judge's findings, the appellate court must affirm.[3]

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.[4]Accordingly, the only issue here is whether the record sufficiently supports the trial court 's finding that default ...

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