Courts Look for Goldilocks Sweet Spot in Awarding Fees for RFA

After a plaintiff won a $2 million wrongful death verdict against two tobacco companies, his lawyers sought almost $1 million in attorney fees and expenses. Attorneys argued that the tobacco company defendants should reimburse the plaintiff for the enormous cost of proving facts that were so obviously truthful that they should not have been contested at trial.

A Florida trial court agreed and awarded nearly $1 million, but the Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed the award in January 2018. The appellate court’s opinion clarifies how courts view requests for admission (RFA), the discovery mechanism articulated in Florida Rules of Civil Procedure 1.370 and 1.380 that the plaintiff relied on in the expense and fee request.

“The rule basically says if you request for someone to admit a fact and they refuse and force you to prove it at trial, you can file a motion for fees and costs,” says Timothy W. Sobczak, a shareholder in Dean Mead’s Orlando office Litigation Department. The rules are not often successfully used to recover attorney fees, Sobczak says, but they can be a fee hook or leverage in settlement discussions if used with foresight.

A party can make an RFA to ask the other side to admit evidence when there is no disagreement about the truth of the matter. If the other side agrees or does not respond, the requested fact is admitted, and neither side then has to waste time or resources on the matter. In theory, everyone benefits by saving money and moving the case along.

In practice, both sides will calculate whether asking for or acceding to an RFA serves their interests. In the chess game of litigation, forcing the opposing party to prove a fact and adding expense may benefit one side.

Sanctions Possible When One Side Rejects RFA

Knowing this stratagem, the rules give courts the authority to punish litigants who slow down a case by not admitting an RFA when the facts are obvious. After proving facts at trial that should not have been contested, a party can request the attorney fees expended in proving those facts.

In R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Liggett Group LLC v. Ward, 2018 WL 576023, (Fla. 1st DCA 2018), a suit brought by the husband of a woman who died of disease after a lifetime of smoking, the plaintiff was forced to prove in court 16 facts after the tobacco companies rejected RFAs. The trial court awarded $981,116.23 in attorney fees and expenses.

The appellate court reversed, explaining that the trial court had overreached and did not look closely at why the defendants had rejected the RFA.

The court explained that RFAs may be rejected in good faith by one party when there is a “good reason,” which may include giving away defense strategy or if the admission seeks to admit a “hotly contested, central issue to the case.” In the tobacco case, the RFA requests concerned issues central to the case, the appellate court said.

The ruling shows that the courts are not justified in using RFA sanctions as a fee shifting provision that rewards one party only because it prevailed in the overriding case.

Looking for the Goldilocks Zone

In a concurring opinion, one judge cited the difficulty of identifying RFA issues that merit sanctions. The judge noted that while RFAs are not intended for issues central to a case, sanctions also are not merited for issues of “no substantial importance.” That means “for an improperly denied request for admission to be sanctionable, it must fall into a Goldilocks zone of being germane to an issue being litigated, but not so important as to be a central issue.”

Identifying this sweet spot is difficult, the judge wrote, and neither the rules nor case law “give sufficient boundaries of what is sanctionable.” The judge suggested that the Florida Bar may want to offer “more defined boundaries” on what is sanctionable.

Sobczak says the ruling doesn’t constitute new law, but it clarifies how courts regard RFA sanctions. “The takeaway is that there are potential sanctions for a party that just drags out everything, but those sanctions only are available if you go to trial,” he says. “The courts are reluctant to make it too easy to shift costs and fees, so this rule applies in fairly narrow circumstances where an issue is important – but not too important, and where one side can be shown to have denied the admission without a good faith basis.”