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Statute of Limitations When a Defendant Dies

One the most basic legal principles is that statutes of limitations establish the time frames in which a civil suit can be brought in a given case and any attempt to bring suit outside of that time frame will inevitably result in the case being dismissed. For example, the statute of limitations for a personal injury matter is two years from the date the injury is, or should be, discovered (see: 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5524(1), (2), and (3)) and, for the most part, bringing a personal injury matter beyond that two year deadline will be cause to dismiss the claim.

One of the possible exceptions to the application of statutes of limitations is if the defendant dies during the pendency of the limitations period. As with any complaint, it is the duty of a plaintiff “to use all reasonable diligence to properly inform himself of the facts and circumstances upon which the right of recovery is based and then institute suit within the prescribed period,” and that includes determining whether the defendant is living or dead at the time of suit. Lange v. Burd, 800 A2d 336 (Pa.Super. 2002).

Generally speaking, a dead person cannot be sued or be a party to an action Montanya v. McGonegal, 757 A.2d 947 (Pa.Super.2000); Lange v. Burd, 800 A2d 336 (Pa.Super. 2002). However, 20 Pa.C.S.A. §3383 carves out an exception to this general rule permitting a dead person to be sued within one year after his death. §3383 goes on to say that its terms ought not be construed to shorten a two year statute of limitations period. Therefore, hypothetically speaking based on the above, if someone died on the day a plaintiff discovered his injury, then the plaintiff would have two years to bring suit against the deceased. At the other end of the spectrum, if someone died on the last day of the two year statute of limitations, then the plaintiff would have an additional year to bring suit against that defendant (for a total of three years). Finally, if someone died during the statutory two year period, the last date a plaintiff could bring suit against the deceased could be either the last day of the two year statutory period or the last day of the one year period stated in §3383 above, whichever came later. Longo v. Longo v. Estep, 289 Pa.Super. 19 (1981); Rylee et ux. v. Nicoll’s Administrator, 74 Pa.D.&C. 269 (1950); Telford Coal Company v. Prothero et al., 24 Pa.D.&.C. 183 (1935).

After considering the above, the obvious question arises as to whether one can substitute another party (e.g.: an estate) for the deceased defendant in order to pursue a plaintiff’s claims. According to applicable case law, one may bring suit against a decedent’s estate in order to pursue claims that would have otherwise been against the decedent himself if he were alive. If a complaint is filed against a deceased person, it must be withdrawn and refiled against his estate instead. Montanya v. McGonegal, 757 A.2d 947 (Pa.Super.2000). The refiled complaint against the estate is subject to the same applicable statutes of limitations stated above for the decedent. See Montanya. The filing of a complaint against the deceased, instead of his estate, does not serve to toll the running of statutes of limitations described above in order to permit an action against the decedent’s estate after the expiration of statutes of limitations described above. See Lange.

The only way around the above statutes of limitations is to argue that there was some sort of fraud or intentional concealment of the death of the defendant which served to unfairly prejudice plaintiff in his attempt to bring suit. See Lange. The plaintiff does not have to prove that fraud or concealment was intentional, just simply that the opposing party’s conduct served to conceal the death of the defendant. See Montanya. When arguing that the opposing party committed fraud and/or concealed the death of the defendant, it should be noted that silence on the part of the opposing party is insufficient to constitute fraud or concealment. As a result, an insurance company or party failing to volunteer the information that the defendant is dead at any time – or even accepting service for the deceased at his residence – during the life of the claim and/or suit will not constitute fraud or concealment. See Montanya. The fraud or concealment must be the result of an affirmative action; consequently a passive action (e.g.: taking no action at all) is not an affirmative action. See Montanya. Moreover, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the fraud and/or concealment with clear and convincing evidence.

Although Pennsylvania law may provide a case with a little more life after the death of a defendant, ultimately statutes of limitations will apply to kill a case even if the death of a defendant did not do it already.

Originally published on June 24, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be seen here.

Aggrieved Parties and Their Right to Appeal

The Rules of Civil Procedure are designed to facilitate litigation so it can be performed smoothly and predictably. Unfortunately, one simply cannot predict and write a rule for every possible contingency that could happen in the life of a case. There will always be circumstances that seem to fall into the cracks between the rules.

Pa.R.C.P. 1028(a)(1) requires a complaint be dismissed when the court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter and/or the parties to a claim. Pa.R.C.P. 1028(5) requires a complaint be dismissed when a plaintiff lacks standing to file one on the issues contained therein. What if a plaintiff sues two defendants in municipal court, wins a judgment for jurisdictional limits against only one defendant but files an appeal to the court of common pleas against both parties despite having won as much as legally permitted against one of the defendants?

Although, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5105, a party may file an appeal from a final order, it could be argued that only an aggrieved party may file an appeal, as in Pierro v. Pierro, 434 Pa. 131 (1969). Pennsylvania case law has something to say on this subject: “Standing [to file an appeal] requires an aggrieved party, and one ‘who is not adversely affected in any way by the matter which he seeks to challenge is not ‘aggrieved’ thereby and has no standing to obtain a judicial resolution of his challenge,’” as the court held in Lisa H v. State Board of Education 67 Pa.Cmwlth. 350 (1982), quoting William Penn Parking Garage v. City of Pittsburgh, 464 Pa. 168 (1975).

If our hypothetical plaintiff above won a judgment against one of the defendants for full jurisdictional limits in municipal court, it could be argued, per the above case law, that the plaintiff is not an aggrieved party, as he won his case against the defendant as completely as possible according to his own complaint and the municipal court rules. As he is not aggrieved, it could be argued, he has no standing to file an appeal of that judgment to the court of common pleas against that defendant. If the plaintiff had no standing and, therefore, could not file an appeal of the judgment, the court of common pleas, theoretically, has no jurisdiction over the person or subject matter at issue as it pertains to that one defendant.

The statute and cases seem to point in the direction that only a truly aggrieved party can file an appeal. Unfortunately, there seems to be a conspicuous absence among the relevant cases and statutes as to precisely whether a party that completely wins its case against a party, particularly in municipal court, is actually an aggrieved party with the right to appeal. It would seem that this issue is ripe for testing in the courts as soon as the opportunity arises.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligener Blog on May 21, 2013 which you can see here.

Superior Court Offers Refresher Course on Appeals Procedures

The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court matter of J.J. DeLuca v. Toll Naval Associates, 2012 Pa.Super. 222, involved a large construction contract, alleged breaches of that contract and allegations of fraud over the life of the relationship of the parties in this case. Although the underlying case is interesting, the focus of this article is what amounted to the primer the court gave in its opinion regarding appellate practice.

After a verdict and an appeal and remand of the same, the trial court again calculated damages that were appealed again by both parties. On appeal, DeLuca raised a whopping 16 issues while Toll raised nine. When faced with potentially 25 issues raised on appeal, the court recalled U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Senior Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert’s statement in his opinion prepared in the case of Kenis v. Perini, 452 Pa.Super. 634 (1996), when he said, “When I read an appellant’s brief that contains 10 or 12 points, a presumption arises that there is no merit to any of them. I do not say that it is an irrebuttable presumption, but it is a presumption that reduces the effectiveness of appellate advocacy. Appellate advocacy is measured by effectiveness, not loquaciousness.” When reviewing DeLuca’s issues raised on appeal, the court further observed that they often overlapped with one another and were inconsistently numbered and lettered.

Some of DeLuca’s arguments regarded the sums of money paid by Toll at one point during the matter. Despite DeLuca’s taking the time to make the arguments, they had virtually no references to places in the record to support their claims. The court noted that Pa.R.A.P. 2119(c) requires references made to pleadings and evidence and such to be specifically cited to in the record. Indeed, the court, citing Commonwealth v. Imes, 603 Pa. 680 (2009), specifically said it would not “scour the record to find the evidence to support an argument.” As a result, the insufficiently cited claims were deemed waived by the court.

The subsequent argument raised by DeLuca presented a conclusory statement without any supporting authority and was therefore deemed waived by the court. DeLuca’s next argument was quickly deemed “demonstrably incorrect” by the court when compared to the clear testimony of the record. DeLuca’s argument after that was also deemed waived because “DeLuca has failed to develop an argument in support of its … claim, and offers no authority at all to support it.” DeLuca also proposed an argument based on the statute of limitations. The court ruled this argument, too, was waived, as “DeLuca [did] not present any citation to the record to support its claim, or to show where Toll’s evidence was deficient.”

Indeed, another of its arguments was dismissed because DeLuca offered “no other substantiation or explanation” aside from a bald assertion offering “no other support of its claim,” not to mention that it “fail[ed] to present or develop an independent argument in support of its claim.” Furthermore, the court noted that DeLuca’s arguments did “nothing to refute the trial court’s findings.” When reviewing DeLuca’s arguments regarding punitive damages, the court indicated that they were “incomplete” and ignored certain issues and/or merely “incorrectly assumed it would prevail on its assertion[s].” The court also believed that DeLuca “misapprehend[ed the court’s] standard of review” and misapplied (or misunderstood) certain constitutional requirements.

As stated above, the Superior Court’s decision is useful as guidance on what to do (or not do) when filing an appeal. First, when filing an appeal, make the issues on appeal concise, specific and clear, as opposed to sprawling, numerous and repetitive. Second, be sure to cite to the record at all times whenever possible, as the court will not do your work for you in this regard. Third, and this seems quite obvious, one’s arguments must be fully developed, based on the facts and evidence available, supported by authority and the record, consistent with the law and clearly explained and articulated to the court.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer Blog on April 23, 2013 which you can see here.

At the Service of the Clerk and Local Custom

Some lawyers like to joke that the Clerk of Court “is god” because the Clerk is, more or less, the gateway into Court.  If the Clerk rejects documents being filed he can frustrate the efforts made by the person doing the filing to seek redress in Court.  In the same way, the Clerk accepting documents allows one access to the Court.  Now, in theory at least, the Clerk is to abide by the Rules of Civil Procedure when accepting or rejecting documents for filing; unfortunately, however, sometimes local habit or custom becomes confused with actual rules and they (custom and habit) can be enforced just as stringently as the actual Rules.

It is practically axiomatic that a case filed in Court needs to be served, which more-or-less means delivered, to the opposing party through hand delivery to ensure the person received it and had an adequate amount of time to respond to it.  The requirement for service is no different in the context of a divorce complaint.

Along with most divorces is an Affidavit and Counteraffiavit under Section 3301(d) of Title 23 of the Pennsylvania Code that is sent to the parties.  Section 3301(d) governs divorces litigated (and often granted) on the basis that the parties are separated for at least two years.  Now, the Affidavit referred to above is prepared by the person seeking the divorce on the basis of a two-year separation and it must be sent to the other party to give him/her the opportunity to accept or deny the assertions in the Affidavit through the filing of the aforesaid Counteraffidavit.  The only thing the Rules require is for the Affidavit and Counteraffidavit to be sent to the opposing party by mail.

Despite the simple requirement described above, fairly early in my career I learned of the power of the Clerk and his interpretation of the Rules and the application of local custom.  I sent an opposing party the Affidavit and Counteraffidavit by mail and then tried to file it with the Court accordingly.  When I tried filing it with the Clerk he rejected it on the basis that the Affidavit and Counteraffidavit were not personally served (i.e.: personally handed to the opposing party as opposed to simply mailed); mind you, the Rules do not require personal service yet this is a great example of what I mention above: local habit and custom  became confused with actual rules as, apparently, personal service of the Affidavit was the typical custom in Philadelphia.

I suggested to the Clerk that he should accept my filing as it is compliant with the Rules and his requirement for personal service is not found in the Rules.  Needless to say, our interaction became somewhat heated when I tried to press him to accept my filing.  It got to the point where I told him to show me where in the Rules personal service is required.  In response, the Clerk brought out a practice manual (not the Rules!) to show me what the suggested “best practice” is for service.  He failed to understand that neither a practice manual nor suggested best practice are the same as the Rules, yet, due to local custom and habit having been hardened into de facto rules, he refused to budge on the point.  Ultimately, I compelled him to take my filing and he, after I left, wrote, in handwriting, on my filing that it was to be rejected as non-compliant and got the judge to sign it.

As a result of the above, I now include the Affidavit and Counteraffidavit as an exhibit to the divorce complaints I file and serve so there is absolutely no doubt that they are served personally upon the opposing party.  Even if the parties have been separated for less than two years, I modify the Affidavit to say something like “the parties will be separated for two years on [date]” just to ensure maximum compliance and clarity.  I highly recommend other family practitioners to do the above as it helps streamline the process, ensure compliance with both the Rules and local custom, and eliminates any question as to the service of the Affidavit and Counteraffidavit.

Part of an attorney’s practice is not just to know the laws and rules applicable to a certain case but to also have familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of a given Court Clerk as he can cause a case to bottleneck in his office and stymie its progress.  Unfortunately, as with me above, these lessons are sometimes learned through trial and error, but through the trial a new and more efficient practice has emerged and I hope it helps other family law practitioners as much as it has helped me.

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