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Pennsylvania Superior Court Maintains a Contempt/Sanctions Proceeding is a ‘Civil Proceeding’ Contemplated by the Dragonetti Act

Posted on: July 29th, 2019

By: Courtney Mazzio

In Pennsylvania, the Dragonetti Act created a wrongful use of civil proceedings cause of action, when a person who takes part in the procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings against another is subject to liability to the other for wrongful use of civil proceedings if: (1) he 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; and (2) the proceedings have terminated in favor of the person against whom they are brought. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351(a). Attorneys may be found liable under this cause of action.

Raynor v. D’Annunzio is a Dragonetti action brought by Plaintiff/appellant attorney,  stemming from contempt proceedings where sanctions were sought against her in an underlying civil suit. Raynor v. D’Annunzio, 2019 PA Super 72, 205 A.3d 1252. In the underlying action, a Philadelphia County Judge ultimately issued over $900,000 in sanctions against counsel for attempting to elicit certain testimony from her expert that was off-limits per a pre-trial in limine ruling. Plaintiff/appellant then appealed ruling to the Superior Court. There was a question over whether counsel had (1) intentionally violated the in limine ruling with her line of questioning of the expert, particularly where there was no  order instructing counsel to instruct her witness not to mention Plaintiff’s smoking history existed; and (2) whether there was evidence of record proving that counsel colluded with the expert in order to actively ignore the in limine ruling during questioning. On these bases, the Superior Court reversed the sanction orders of the trial court.

Plaintiff/appellant then brought this separate Dragonetti action against Plaintiff’s counsel in the underlying action, claiming counsel knew their requests for sanctions and contempt were unsupported by the facts and law, yet they pursued the action anyway in an effort to ruin counsel’s livelihood and professional life. Appellee filed Preliminary Objections, which resulted in the rare dismissal of a case with prejudice, in part on the basis that the phrase found in the Pennsylvania cause of action  “procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings” means the filing of a civil action, and does not include the filing of a post-trial motion. See id. at 1260. Plaintiff/appellant once again appealed the decision of the trial court. The Pennsylvania Superior Court found that a motion seeking a finding of contempt and a request for sanctions is, separate and distinct from post-trial motions alleging trial court error filed in the underlying lawsuit for the purposes of the Dragonetti Act. See id. at 1261-62. They determined it is essentially the same as the filing of a civil lawsuit. See id. Put another way, the Court found that seeking an adjudication of contempt and requesting sanctions constituted the procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings as contemplated by the Dragonetti Act. See id.  On this basis, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court sustaining the Preliminary Objections and remanded it to the trial court. It remains to be seen how the trial court will ultimately rule in this longstanding dispute riddled with contention.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Courtney Mazzio at [email protected].

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