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Don’t Like An Award From Compulsory Arbitration? You Must Appeal

Can a party to a case where a judgment has been entered in compulsory arbitration have that judgment modified without appealing? This is the underlying question in the recent matter heard by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, captioned as Blucas v. Agiovlasitis, 2018 Pa.Super. 25.

In Blucas, tenants brought suit against their former landlord for the return of their security deposit. The landlord, of course, claimed the leasehold had damages for which he incurred expenses and he needed compensation/reimbursement from the tenants.

The case was tracked into compulsory arbitration pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 7361. After a hearing before a panel of arbitrators, a judgment was entered awarding the tenants $10,000 and the landlord $1,450, for a net award to the tenants of $8,550.

Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307 and established case law, the entry of an award following compulsory arbitration has the force and effect of a final judgment. The court contrasted an award flowing from compulsory arbitration with one following statutory or common law arbitration. Unlike an award from compulsory arbitration, a party must petition the trial court to confirm an award from statutory or common law arbitration 30 days or more following the date of the award. For an award from compulsory arbitration neither party must file a præcipe to enter judgment on the award.

In July 2016, an award and notice of the same was entered on the docket in this matter, and was final (unless appealed). A judgment on the award was entered in November 2016. Within less than two weeks following the entry of the judgment in Blucas, the landlord remitted a check to the tenants for the full amount of the judgment ($8,550). Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307, a party must file an appeal within 30 days from when the award and notice are entered on the docket in order to further litigate the matter. No appeal was ever filed. Instead of appealing, the tenants, in April 2017, filed a motion for costs and prejudgment interest (motion) requesting a recalculation of the award.

The court reviewed the various case, statutory, and procedural laws applicable to the instant matter, and unequivocally concluded that the sole remedy for an adverse or unsatisfactory compulsory arbitration award is an appeal within 30 days from the award and notice. The only exception to the above the court could discern is Pa.R.C.P. 1307(d), which provides for a means to “mold” a previously entered award for obvious errors, in either arithmetic or language, that do not go to the substance and/or merits of the award.

The tenants’ motion did not address basic errors in arithmetic and language but, rather, asked the trial court to award them additional damages in prejudgment interest and costs. Inexplicably, and without citing support, the trial court granted the tenants’ motion, which led to the landlord’s appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court, resulting in the decision, cited above, that is the subject of this article.

Superior Court noted that the motion did not comply with the law and procedure cited above.  The motion clearly is not an example of “molding.” More importantly, it was not filed within 30 days of the award.  The trial court was unclear as to precisely how it calculated the award and what the figures in the award exactly represented (e.g., interest and costs? security deposit? pet deposit? etc.). As a result, there is no way for Superior Court to even attempt to “mold” the award regarding prejudgment interest, even if it could. Consequently, as the tenants did not file an appeal of the compulsory arbitration award, the trial court was without authority to attempt to revisit the award with regard to prejudgment interest.

As always, it is absolutely critical for practitioners to be totally cognizant of the applicable deadlines and time periods mandated by law or procedure and act accordingly to ensure compliance with the same and opportunity to litigate a matter as fully as possible.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 19, 2018 and can be found here.

A Collection of Personal Injury Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of personal injury legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal IntelligencerUpon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

Musings:

My Articles:

A Collection of Contract and Debt Collection Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of contract law issues and debt collection legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal IntelligencerUpon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

My Articles:

Musings:

Acknowledging a Debt to Toll the Statute of Limitations

As every lawyer knows, the statute of limitations is the death knell for any case if the deadline it sets to bring a lawsuit is missed.

Collecting on money owed pursuant to a contract is generally governed by a four (4) year statute of limitations which begins to run upon the breach of that contract. One way to extend that four (4) year statute is to find a way to toll it. The case of In Re Michael Angelo Corry Inn, Inc., 297 B.R. 435 (W.D., PA 2003), provides one innovative way to try and toll it.  Specifically, the Court in the above case analyzed whether acknowledging a debt and promising to repay serves as a way to toll the statute of limitations.

The underlying case involved the filing of a proof of claim by a creditor against a debtor who has filed for bankruptcy. The fact that the context of the case was bankruptcy has no effect or relevance on how the statute of limitations for a contract claim functions and/or applies. The issue was the fact that the creditor did not pursue the alleged debt with any alacrity and many years passed with no action taken on the loan and/or its repayment. The time that elapsed from the potential breach was longer than four (4) years in this case and, therefore, on its face, any action to pursue the contract claim would then be barred by the relevant statute of limitations. In order to avoid the contract claim from being a non-starter due to being barred by the statute of limitations, the creditor attempted to argue that the aforesaid statute is tolled by an acknowledgment of the debt made my the debtor.

The Court agreed that the statute of limitations on contract claims can be tolled if the debtor acknowledges a debt. The caveat, however, is that acknowledgment is more than merely expressing a willingness to pay it.

The acknowledgement doctrine requires a debtor’s acknowledging the existence of, and obligation for, a debt to be clear, distinct, and unequivocal, along with a promise to pay that is similarly doubtless. The Court made it clear that there must be no uncertainty in the debtor’s identification of the specific debt owed, acknowledgment of his own obligation to pay that debt, and a clear promise to pay. A debtor who simply declares an intention or desire to honor his obligation is not considered to have made a promise to pay sufficient to toll the statute of limitations under the acknowledgment doctrine.

So, when litigating a breach of contract claim for an unpaid debt, if one thinks the case can no longer be pursued due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, remember to fully explore the acknowledgement doctrine. It may allow a creditor to successfully pursue a debtor far beyond the four (4) years permitted by the statute of limitations.

Originally published on September 8, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be found here.

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