A unanimous three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel on March 8 reversed a 2017 decision that dismissed the case Raynor v. D’Annunzio, which stemmed from contempt proceedings that captured the attention of lawyers across Pennsylvania. The Superior Court’s ruling also upheld the trial court’s decision to toss two of Raynor’s claims, but ultimately sent the case back to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Nearly five years ago, Raynor was slammed with a $946,000 sanction over her handling of an expert in a medical malpractice case. That penalty was later reversed, and Raynor subsequently sued three attorneys and two law firms, alleging wrongful use of civil proceedings, Dragonetti Act violations and abuse of process for the sanctions.
In the latest ruling, the three-judge Superior Court panel specifically reversed the lower court’s finding that contempt proceedings cannot constitute “civil proceedings” for the purposes of bringing a Dragonetti Action.
Judge Kate Ford Elliott, who wrote the majority’s 21-page opinion, said civil proceedings and motions for contempt both “put an individual’s basic fundamental right of property in legal jeopardy.”
“We find 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, tantamount to the filing of a civil lawsuit,” Ford Elliott said.
The controversial sanction against Raynor stemmed from the underlying medical malpractice case, Sutch v. Roxborough Memorial Hospital, which involved allegations that doctors failed to tell a woman that a chest X-ray showed a suspicious nodule. The sanction was imposed after Raynor allegedly failed to instruct a medical expert not to mention the deceased plaintiff’s smoking history. That alleged mistake led to a new trial after the first trial resulted in a $190,000 verdict in 2012. The new trial ended with a nearly $2 million award.
Along with the nearly $1 million sanction, Raynor was also hit with a separate $45,000 sanction for allegedly attempting to pressure a witness in the same case. That sanction, however, was upheld by the Superior Court.
In January 2017, Raynor sued Joe Messa and his firm, Messa & Associates, as well as attorneys Matthew D’Annunzio and William T. Hill and the firm Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg. Hill and D’Annunzio worked at Klehr Harrison at the time the medical malpractice case was tried, but D’Annunzio had since moved to Offit Kurman. Along with a Dragonetti claim, Raynor alleged wrongful use of civil proceedings and abuse of process.
In making her claims, Raynor had contended the defendants pursued the sanctions for vindictive purposes and so they could recover “greater fees than those to which the attorney defendants were entitled under their contingent fee agreement with [Rosalind Sutch, the plaintiff in the underlying medical malpractice case] for the legal services rendered in the Sutch action.”
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Arnold New, in August 2017, dismissed her civil suit, saying her complaint admitted that Raynor had violated an order in the underlying trial, so her claims had to fail.
Along with contending that the contempt proceedings constituted civil proceedings for the purposes of pursuing a Dragonetti claim, Raynor also contended that, even though she was not a party in the underlying action, she had standing to bring the claims. Although the Superior Court agreed with New’s decision to toss the abuse of process and wrongful use of civil proceedings claims, the appeals court agreed with Raynor on the standing issue.
“While we make no determination as to whether appellants will be successful on the merits, they are entitled to their day in court,” Ford Elliott said.
Raynor’s attorney, Clifford Haines, said, “We are obviously delighted with the outcome. We thought, all along, that what the Superior Court said is what the law is and should be in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Robert Fiebach of Cozen O’Connor, who represents Klehr Harrison, Hill and D’Annunzio, said “We are considering our options.”
“We think the court got it right on the two claims that they upheld the dismissal on,” he said. “We think the court got it wrong on the Dragonetti claim.”
Fox Rothschild attorney Robert Tintner, who is representing Messa, said they were “disappointed with the result, but we certainly do not see this as the end of any sort of appellate review of the trial court’s decision.”
“Ultimately we believe that Judge New’s analysis was correct and consistent with Pennsylvania appellate jurisprudence on the Dragonetti Act,” he said.