By Isaac Thorp
You served the following request for admission and got this response:
Request: Admit that the second paragraph of the contract attached as Exhibit A states: “… (verbatim quote).”
Answer: The document speaks for itself.
Is this an appropriate objection?
Numerous federal courts have held that asserting that a document “speaks for itself” is not a proper objection to a request to admit that a document contains quoted language. In Miller v. Holzmann, 240 F.R.D. 1, 66 Fed. R. Serv. 3d 977 (D.C. Cir. 2006), plaintiff served a request for admission that a document contained language quoted in the request. The defendant objected on the grounds that the document “speaks for itself.” The court held that the objection was improper:
“It is astonishing that the objection that a document speaks for itself, repeated every day in courtrooms across America, has no support whatsoever in the law of evidence. . . . The tautological ‘objection’ that the finder of fact can read the document for itself to see if the quote is accurate is not a legitimate objection but an evasion of the responsibility to either admit or deny a request for admission, unless a legitimate objection can be made or the responding party explains in detail why it can neither admit nor deny the request.” Id. at 4.
The court concludes that “an ‘objection’ that the document speaks for itself does not move the ball an inch down the field and defeats the narrowing of issues in dispute that is the purpose of the rule permitting requests for admission.” Id.; accord Diederich v. Dep’t of the Army, 132 F.R.D. 614 (S.D.N.Y. 1990).
In Booth Oil Site Administrative Group v. Safety-Kleen Corporation, 194 F.R.D. 76 (W.D.N.Y. 2000), the court also found that it is permissible to request that a party admit or deny a Rule 36 request as to the accuracy of quoted textual material from a document relevant to the case:
“[A]s a statement of a document’s text is a matter of fact, a request calling upon a party to admit or deny that such quoted material is the actual text of an identified document, relevant to the case, may not be ignored on the ground that the request seeks an interpretation of the text or that the document in question ‘speaks for itself.’ Documents do not speak, rather, they represent factual information from which legal consequences may follow. . . . It is therefore permissible to request that a party admit or deny a Rule 36 request as to the accuracy of quoted textual material from a particular document relevant to case.” Id. at 80.
See also Frontier-Kemper Constructors, Inc. v. Elk Run Coal Co., Inc., 246 F.R.D. 522 (S.D. W. Va. 2007) (court awards sanctions against party that objected to request for admission about contents of a relevant document, noting that ‘a favorite excuse for not answering requests for admission in a contract case is that ‘the document speaks for itself’”); House v. Giant of Maryland, LLC, 232 F.R.D. 257 (E.D. Va. 2005) (court awarded sanctions against defendant for evasive response to request for admission about contents of document); Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Souras, 78 Md. App. 71, 552 A.2d 908 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1989) (court deemed party’s response that “The policy speaks for itself – a copy is attached” as an admission that that underinsured motorist coverage was $50,000).
Although filing a motion to compel on an issue like this is troublesome and time consuming, it is worth it. The court will not appreciate your opponent’s failure to admit a relevant fact, and you will be able to simplify your proof at trial.
I have found no North Carolina or Fourth Circuit cases that address this issue. If anyone knows of any, please email me at email@example.com.