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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Dismisses Dragonetti Action, Clarifies What Constitutes a “Civil Proceeding” Under Pennsylvania Law

An image of RK Law's Cathleen Kelly Rebar on the right, and Patrick J. Healey on the left.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a victory to our insured clients in Raynor v. Messa, et. al. (Nos. 35 and 36 EAP 2019) and dismissed a Dragonetti Act lawsuit brought against them. The case presented a novel argument concerning the application of Pennsylvania’s Dragonetti Act to intra-litigation proceedings. Under this Act, a defendant can be held liable where he “takes part in the procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings against another” and in doing so “acts in a grossly negligent manner or without probable cause and primarily for a purpose other than that of securing the proper discovery, joinder of parties or adjudication of the claim in which the proceedings are based.” 42 Pa. C.S. §8351(a), (a)(1).

In Raynor, Nancy Raynor filed a civil action in Philadelphia County under the Dragonetti Act against the attorneys who filed the intra-litigation Motion, including our clients, Joseph Messa, Jr., and Messa & Associates (Messa Defendants), on the basis that the Motion was frivolous and filed in bad faith during a 2012 medical malpractice trial. During the trial, Ms. Raynor, who represented a defendant physician in the underlying action, had failed to inform an expert witness of a Court Order precluding reference to the plaintiff’s smoking history. At trial, verdict was entered in favor of the plaintiffs for $190,000. The Court granted a Motion for a new trial, in part because the expert witness improperly mentioned plaintiff’s smoking history.

Counsel for the plaintiffs (which included the Messa Defendants) then filed the Motion for Contempt against Raynor, seeking monetary sanctions because of her failure to advise the expert of the Court’s preclusive Order. The Court granted the Motion and awarded sanctions against her and her firm in the amount of $946,195.16, which was the amount of counsel fees and costs of the first trial. Raynor appealed the Order to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. While the appeal was pending, writs of attachment were issued, and a judgment was entered against Ms. Raynor. Ms. Raynor’s personal and business bank accounts were frozen and a lien was placed on her home. Upon petition, the Superior Court stayed the Orders of execution and garnishment. Ultimately, the Superior Court reversed the Contempt Order and vacated the sanctions

After achieving an outcome in her favor regarding the Motion for Contempt, Ms. Raynor and her firm filed a Complaint in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas (January Term, 2017, No. 0211) against plaintiffs’ counsel, including the Messa Defendants, for wrongful use of civil proceedings under the Dragonetti Act. Ms. Raynor alleged that the Motion for Contempt filed against her was “wholly unsupported by fact and law” yet were pursued “for the vindictive purpose of destroying [her] professional livelihood and personal life.”

On behalf of the Messa Defendants, we sought dismissal of the Complaint through Preliminary Objections, on grounds that the Motion for Contempt did not constitute “civil proceedings” under the Dragonetti Act, as neither Ms. Raynor nor her firm were named as defendants in a lawsuit. The Trial Court sustained the Preliminary Objections and dismissed the Complaint with prejudice. The Trial Court agreed with our arguments, noting that “civil proceedings” under the Act mean one party instituting a lawsuit against another and does not include a request for sanctions in a post-trial Motion. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed, holding that the Contempt motion “represented the procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings for purposes of Dragonetti liability.” We appealed this decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In reversing the decision of the Superior Court, the Supreme Court examined whether the Contempt motion constituted “procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings” under the Dragonetti Act. Finding that the term “civil proceedings” as used in the Dragonetti Act was ambiguous, the Court looked at other Pennsylvania statutes, most notably the definitions section of the Pennsylvania Judicial Code, found at 42 Pa. C.S. §102. The Judicial Code defines an “action” as “any action at law or equity” but its definition of a “proceeding,” specifically includes a “petition or other application” but specifically excludes an “action.” If the Dragonetti Act’s definition of “proceedings” included motions, then complaints commencing “actions” would have to be excluded, which would gut the intention of the law. The Court held:

Thus, “civil proceedings” as referenced in the [Dragonetti] Act cannot include both the filing of motions within a case and the filing of complaints to initiate a case because those separate legal undertakings are independently defined under the Judicial Code to exclude one another. . . This legislative purpose would indeed be undermined if frivolous and abusive “civil proceedings” included motions but excluded the actions at law or equity within which they are lodged.

The Court also noted that Pa. R.C.P. 1023.1 specifically authorizes sanctions for pleadings, written motions, and other papers filed with the Court for an improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation. The Court stated that “[i]f motions filed within lawsuits were considered to be actionable ‘civil proceedings,’ it would render either the rule or the [Dragonetti] Act superfluous, which is contrary to established rules of statutory construction.” The Court remanded the matter back to the trial court so that summary judgment could be entered in favor of the defendants, including the Messa Defendants.

In a closing salvo reflective of the bitterness and animosity between the parties, the Court stated that this matter has “gone on long enough,” and given its decision, expected that the litigation was to end here and that it took “a dim view of further proceedings.”

The decision was a reaffirmation of the well-founded application of the Dragonetti Act but constitutes a significant and warranted victory for lawyers and their professional liability carriers, who now will not have to be concerned that routine case filings can subject them to Dragonetti Act liability. This is now the seminal case on Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings and the Dragonetti Act in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we feel privileged to have contributed to such a monumental decision.

For more information on this case and the issues raised therein, please contact Cathleen Kelly Rebar or Patrick Healey.

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