• The Persistent Pitfalls of Pennsylvania Post-Decision Practice
  • May 5, 2003 | Author: Charles W. Craven
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Philadelphia Office
  • In 1984, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rescinded Rules 1518 and 1519 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which governed the procedures for post-trial relief in an equity action, and adopted Rules 227.1 through 227.4 to establish uniform procedures for post-trial relief in actions at law tried, with or without a jury, and in equity actions. Pursuant to Rule 227.1(c), a post-trial motion has to be filed within ten days after a (1) verdict, discharge of the jury because of inability to agree, or nonsuit in the case of a jury trial; or (2) notice of nonsuit or the filing of the decision or adjudication in the case of a trial without a jury or equity trial.

    That simple scheme seemed so straightforward to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Lane Enterprises, 710 A.2d 54 (Pa. 1998), that it ruled that a party should have filed a motion for post-trial relief in a non-jury action instead of a notice of appeal, even though the trial court issued an opinion after the trial instead of the customary findings of fact and conclusions of law, and thus led the party to believe that the court had issued a final, appealable ruling.

    More recently, however, in Chalkley v. Roush, 805 A.2d 491 (Pa. 2002), the high court found that so much confusion over post-trial equity practice persisted that it had to excuse a party's failure to file a post-trial motion. The court's opinion stressed, however, that Rule 227.1(c) would be enforced in future cases and the "confusion" excuse would no longer be available.

    Two other events coincided shortly after Chalkley was published. First, the Supreme Court's Civil Procedure Rules Committee issued a recommendation for amendments to the rules that would dispense with the separate chapter of rules for equity actions and bring those rules into the chapter which deals with actions at law. Second, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in four consolidated cases which dealt with post-decision practice in declaratory judgment cases. In those cases, the proverbial fly is trapped in an ointment made from the procedural rule that links declaratory judgment actions with equity actions, and from the Declaratory Judgments Act, which states both that declaratory judgments have the force and effect of a final judgment or decree, and that issues of fact in declaratory judgment actions are to be determined as in other civil actions.

    Coupled with Chalkley, both events hold promise of paving over some of the pitfalls of post-decision practice. There is, however, room for doubt about the extent to which those events may develop a final determination of the confusion. The proposed rule change to be issued may not help entirely, since reports of some of its details indicate that it apparently does not involve declaratory judgment actions. That omission could be a problem, because the civil rules for declaratory judgment actions currently link to the equity rules.

    Moreover, the sideline debate between the majority and the concurring opinions in Chalkley about post-decision practice in declaratory judgment actions certainly peaked the interest of the parties in the cases argued after Chalkley. However, that debate provides no clear guidance either to those parties or to other parties who are involved in actions where declaratory relief may be granted.

    What to do? Why not make the rules uniform for actions at law, actions in equity, and declaratory judgment actions?

    The procedural path to the trial court's decision and the current appellate doctrine favoring appeals only after all issues as to all parties have been resolved provide two key guideposts. Regardless of the form of the action or the relief which it seeks, a complete adjudication of all claims as to all parties before trial could serve as a signal that a notice of appeal should be filed, rather than a motion for post-trial relief. Conversely, regardless of the form of the action or the relief which it seeks, if a trial is held, even if the trial involves less than all of the original parties and issues, that could serve as a signal that a motion for post-trial relief has to be filed and determined before a notice of appeal can be filed.

    In reaching that point of uniformity, some past and current rules and rulings will have to be changed. But those changes can and should be made comprehensively. Let's see what happens.