Appellate Law

Are Appeals Courts Showing More Mercy for Procedural Errors?

, The Legal Intelligencer

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While McBride said she has noticed an effort by appellate courts to give litigants some leeway in following procedural rules in some instance, one Pennsylvania appellate lawyer who asked not to be named said he felt the intermediate appellate courts in particular have shifted the focus of their analyses of trial court decisions in recent years, placing an emphasis on looking at procedural problems first and the merits second.

"I think they are getting a lot of appeals and that creates a lot of work for them to do," McBride said. "I think it's quite natural that if they have a lot of work to do and can get rid of some cases relatively easily and quickly for waiver or noncompliance, I guess they go for it."

Still, a number of appellate court decisions in recent years have taken lower courts to task for allowing procedural defects to derail otherwise meritorious cases, often relying on the Budget Laundry and DublinSportswear decisions.

The Jones case was just the most recent example of this.

In the 2009 case Cheng v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the Commonwealth Court ruled that a Philadelphia trial court abused its discretion when it refused to grant a brief continuance to the defendants to allow for the appearance of their medical expert in an injury case.

A three-judge panel, led by former Senior Judge James R. Kelley, cited Budget Laundry, finding that while the Supreme Court has held that deference must be afforded to trial courts' efforts to expedite cases and ease their heavy caseloads, "that deference has been expressly tempered by our appellate courts' refusal to place the efficient and timely adherence to trial court calendars above the cause of the needs of justice in all circumstances."

In an unreported 2008 opinion in Horner v. Loyalsock Township School District, a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court said a Lycoming County trial court abused its discretion when it struck a plaintiff's appeal of a board of view's condemnation award after the appeal was misdocketed by the prothonotary.

"Provisions in the Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as in the Judicial Code, clearly convey an aversion in our law to the sort of hypertechnicality applied in the present case," then-President Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter wrote for the court, explaining that the trial court should have simply ordered the prothonotary to correct the error and continued with the case.

But it's not only trial courts that have had their decisions overturned for dismissing cases on purely procedural grounds.

In the 2012 case Newman Development Group of Pottstown v. Genuardi's Family Markets, the Supreme Court ruled that the Superior Court was wrong to throw out Genuardi's appeal of an $18.5 million judgment based on what it said was an unclear rule.

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