Giving Genuardi’s a new chance to challenge an $18.5 million judgment, the state Supreme Court on Friday decided a party should not lose its right to appeal for failure to file post-trial motions after a ruling on remand.
The procedural issue in Newman Development Group of Pottstown v. Genuardi’s Family Markets has been closely watched by attorneys across the state and drew amicus briefs from bar associations, the Pennsylvania Association for Justice and former state appeals court judges, all of which said the Superior Court was wrong to throw out Genuardi’s appeal of a multimillion-dollar judgment based on what they said was an unclear rule.
It appears the court paid close attention to the amicus arguments, noting them fairly extensively in its opinion and relying on one of their main arguments — enforcing this rule and quashing an appeal under circumstances in which the rule does not clearly define would be simply unjust.
“To warrant the heavy consequence of waiver, in a rules schemata designed to ‘secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination’ of disputes, the applicability of the rule should be apparent upon its face or, failing that, in clear decisional law construing the rule,” Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote for the unanimous court.
The rule at issue is Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 227.1 and it requires a party to file post-trial motions with the trial judge within 10 days of a verdict, discharge of the jury or notice of nonsuit or judicial finding. Castille found the rule, and the small amount of case law interpreting it, did not offer practitioners a clear understanding of when the rule applied.
Genuardi’s was sued by Newman Development when it backed out of a lease deal. A Chester County Court of Common Pleas judge initially awarded Newman $316,890 in damages. Genuardi’s appropriately filed under Rule 227.1 post-trial motions regarding that ruling. The Superior Court kicked the case back to the trial judge for a recalculation of damages and the judge, without hearing any additional evidence, molded the verdict to $18.5 million.
Genuardi’s appealed that ruling directly to the Superior Court without filing post-trial motions with the trial judge. The court dismissed the appeal, finding Genuardi’s waived its right to appeal for failure to file post-trial motions.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, Genuardi’s argued a recalculation of damages without receiving additional evidence did not constitute a trial for purposes of Rule 227.1.
Newman, on the other hand, argued the recalculation was done after a trial, and therefore Rule 227.1 applies. Newman said the rule allows trial judges to correct errors, reducing the number, burden and costs of appeals.
Castille said the rule is clear, and the parties complied, that post-trial motions are required from a court’s decision or verdict at the conclusion of a non-jury trial. The rule, however, does not speak to what happens in an appellate remand proceeding, Castille said, noting the rule is “found square in the middle of rules governing civil trial practice.”
“Obviously, if an appellate court remands for a new trial, the civil trial rules apply again, and in full force,” Castille said. “But the circumstances here — not an uncommon scenario — involves a gray area, where there are to be further proceedings below, but the proceedings do not amount to a new trial.”
Because the civil rules do not define “trial” or address what proceedings constitute a trial for purposes of the post-trial motion requirement, Castille said the court had to determine whether the remand proceeding in this case was a trial.
“We think not,” he said.
Castille said even the trial judge on remand noted “‘the trial has ended.’” Castille said the rule and the few intermediate appellate court decisions interpreting it are not clear on what is required in a non-trial, remand scenario.
“In short, the panel’s decision to quash the appeal is at odds with the reasonable expectations of practicing attorneys who would read the rule and attempt to discern the scope of the post-trial motion requirement,” Castille said.
Castille also examined the two appellate court cases that interpreted Rule 227.1 — the 1991 Superior Court decision in Lenhart v. Travelers Insurance and the 2004 Superior Court ruling in Cerniga v. Mon Valley Speed Boat Club.
In Lenhart, the court found a proceeding that does not involve taking evidence is not a trial, negating the need for post-trial motions. In Cerniga, the court quashed the appeal of a ruling on remand, finding new facts were raised and conclusions of law were entered that required post-trial motions be filed.
Castille said Cerniga dealt more with whether a Rule 1925 process was sufficient to preserve an appellant’s right to appeal and could therefore compensate for failing to file post-trial motions under Rule 227.1. The chief justice determined that attorneys could interpret Lenhart and Cerniga to mean post-trial motions were not required under the circumstances in Genuardi’s.
“A remand proceeding such as the one here, that relies on an existing record, is not a trial — even if the trial court draws different conclusions from that record to comport with an appellate court’s directive,” Castille said. “Thus, the remand proceeding in this instance, where the trial judge merely reached a different damage calculation based upon facts and contract terms already in the record, was not a ‘trial,’ and Rule 227.1 does not apply.”
Castille said the court’s decision interprets the rule as written, but said the case revealed there are circumstances for which the rule does not account. He referred the issue to the Civil Procedural Rules Committee for examination and recommendation on whether the rule should be revised. Castille sent the grocer’s case back to the Superior Court for consideration on the merits.
Robert L. Byer of Duane Morris represented Genuardi’s along with Carl Solano and Nancy Winkelman of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. Thomas A. “Buck” Riley Jr. of Riley Riper Hollin & Colagreco in Exton, Pa., represented Newman.
Byer said the court’s ruling was “much needed” in giving attorneys guidance on how the rules will be interpreted. He said the Supreme Court essentially said lawyers have to be given fair notice on what the rules require before quashing appeals.
“This idea of making it up as we go with the idea that waiver is the consequence, it’s really unjustifiable,” Byer said.
Riley said he agreed with Superior Court President Judge Correale F. Stevens’ opinion in the case, but said the Supreme Court’s ruling is the final word.
“It has nothing whatsoever to do with the merits of the case, or that our client has an $18.5 million verdict,” Riley said.
He said he feels good about his client’s chances on the merits.
Byer noted how important the amicus filers were to the outcome of the case.
“When the organized bar comes in like that in addition to individual practitioners, it just really says something,” Byer said.
The amicus filers, all of which filed in support of Genuardi’s, were the Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Allegheny County bar associations; the PAJ; former Superior Court Judges Phyllis W. Beck, Maureen Lally-Green, Justin M. Johnson and Robert A. Graci; and appellate attorneys Charles W. Craven and John J. Hare of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Kandice J. Giurintano of McNees Wallace & Nurick, John P. Krill Jr. of K&L Gates, Brian T. Must of Metz Lewis Brodman Must O’Keefe, James C. Sargent of Lamb McErlane, Sean R. Sullivan of Curtin & Heefner and Kim M. Watterson of Reed Smith.
The appellate lawyers and former judges were represented by David Fine of K&L Gates in Harrisburg. Charles “Chip” Becker of Kline & Specter signed on to the amicus brief by the appellate lawyers and judges and filed his own on behalf of the PAJ.
Castille penned the decision for a six-justice majority. Justice Joan Orie Melvin did not participate in the decision because she is under suspension pending the resolution of criminal charges against her.
(Copies of the 31-page opinion in Newman Development Group of Pottstown v. Genuardi’s Family Markets, PICS No. 12-1846, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •