Appellate Law

Are Appeals Courts Showing More Mercy for Procedural Errors?

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A handful of cases over the past few years have seen Pennsylvania appellate courts taking a stand against the judicial practice of tossing out otherwise meritorious cases on procedural technicalities, but attorneys said it's still an issue, as both trial and appellate courts continue to battle heavy caseloads.

Furthermore, attorneys said, there is a lack of consistency in how much forgiveness appellate courts are willing to extend to parties for procedural errors.

Maureen M. McBride, a partner in the litigation and appellate department of Lamb McErlane in West Chester, Pa., said in an email that she believes appellate courts have been willing to overturn lower court rulings where procedural missteps put one of the parties out of court, but she added that "the courts' generosity is not always meted out consistently."

"We see plenty of cases where strict adherence to the rules (particularly with regard to the rules regarding waiver) is applied—to the great detriment of one of the parties—while, in other cases ... the courts appear to be more sympathetic to the plight of the parties by forgiving a technical misstep," McBride said in the email. "I think for predictability purposes, it would be helpful for the courts to clarify when and under what circumstances technical errors will be overlooked."

As an example of a case where the appellate court was willing to excuse procedural issues in favor of allowing the parties to have their day in court, McBride pointed to the recent unpublished Pennsylvania Superior Court opinion in Jones v. Mercy Suburban Hospital.

In that opinion, issued Jan. 31, a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously ruled to reverse Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Arthur R. Tilson's order dismissing a wrongful-death and survival action and remanded the matter for trial.

Judge Anne E. Lazarus, writing for the majority, said that even though the case was more than a decade old and trial had already been delayed several times, Tilson abused his discretion by dismissing the suit when there was no evidence that delaying the trial again would prejudice the defendant hospital and doctors.

Lazarus called Tilson's order "troubling" and said it "placed justice second to arbitrary compliance with procedural rules."

"While we acknowledge that delays can be costly and inconvenient for both the courts and the parties, they are not a reason to deprive either party of its day in court," Lazarus said, calling it "troubling that Judge Tilson dismissed Jones' case because it was old."

"This court has repeatedly held that a court's legitimate interest in controlling its docket should not unnecessarily infringe upon a litigant's right to a trial," Lazarus said, adding that "Tilson's decision to dismiss this case on a technicality placed justice second to arbitrary compliance with procedural rules, and constituted an abuse of his discretion."

The legal tenet that courts should not place strict interpretations of procedural rules ahead of justice is not a new one.

The state Supreme Court ruled in the 1972 case Budget Laundry v. Munter that courts must bear in mind that "lawsuits are more than numbers or punches in computer cards."

"Individual cases are, of course, of great importance to the litigants involved, and courts must not overreach in their zeal to move cases to such an extent as to allow for no deviations from strict and literal adherence to policies justifiably laid down to improve the condition of the courts," the Budget Laundry court said.

In 1979, the high court held in Dublin Sportswear v. Charlett that "the quality of justice must not be subordinated to arbitrary insistence upon compliance with procedural rules."

But Pennsylvania attorneys said they believe increasingly busy courts often attempt to lighten their caseloads by looking for procedural defects to weed out cases.

McBride said she does think heavy caseloads are a contributing factor to some courts' less lenient attitudes toward procedural mistakes, but she conceded that procedural rules are necessary to keep the courts running smoothly.

"I think there's a lot of utility in holding people to the rules," McBride said. "I think we need to do that for efficiency's sake."

John J. Hare, chair of the appellate advocacy and post-trial practice group of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia, said in an email that appellate review of procedural dismissals tends to be "fact-sensitive and case-specific."

"Our appellate courts tend to review procedural dismissals closely because, in general, they don't want litigants to lose their day in court based on what may be seen as technicalities," Hare said. "However, in appropriate cases, and especially where a party has no legitimate excuse for violating a well-settled rule, the appellate courts certainly do affirm procedural dismissals, even if it means putting a litigant out of court in a significant case."

Still, McBride said there needs to be more guidance as to when courts will be willing to overlook procedural defects and when they won't.

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.

The rule at issue, Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 227.1, requires a party to file post-trial motions with the trial judge within 10 days of a verdict, discharge of the jury or notice of nonsuit or judicial finding.

Genuardi's was sued by Newman Development when it backed out of a lease deal. A Chester County Court of Common Pleas judge initially awarded Newman $316,890 in damages. Genuardi's appropriately filed under Rule 227.1 post-trial motions regarding that ruling. The Superior Court kicked the case back to the trial judge for a recalculation of damages and the judge, without hearing any additional evidence, molded the verdict to $18.5 million.

Genuardi's appealed that ruling directly to the Superior Court without filing post-trial motions with the trial judge. The court dismissed the appeal, finding Genuardi's waived its right to appeal for failure to file post-trial motions.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, writing for the court, found the rule, and the small amount of case law interpreting it, did not offer practitioners a clear understanding of when the rule applied.

"To warrant the heavy consequence of waiver, in a rules schemata designed to 'secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination' of disputes, the applicability of the rule should be apparent upon its face or, failing that, in clear decisional law construing the rule," Castille wrote for the unanimous court.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •

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