In Order To Pursue, Plaintiffs Must First Plead: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reigns in Sua Sponte Validation of Unpled Claims
Pennsylvania - Civil Procedure
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently tempered the ability of courts to search a plaintiff's complaint for the existence of a cause of action - even one not raised by the plaintiff himself - for the purpose of determining that the plaintiff's claim is timely. In Steiner v. Markel, 2009 Pa. LEXIS 666, 968 A.2d 1253 (2009), the Supreme Court rejected a long line of Superior Court precedent which held that, when asked to determine the legal sufficiency of a complaint, the trial court must determine whether the facts alleged would support any cause of action - whether or not the cause of action discovered by the court was actually plead by the plaintiff.
In January 2002, Clifford and Bonnie Steiner (the Steiners), who sought to purchase a piece of real property in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, retained the services of John F. Markel, Esquire of Nikolaus & Hohenadel, LLP (the Attorneys) to act as their counsel at the February 2002 closing. In advance of the closing, Mr. Markel prepared the deed for the subject property but erroneously described the property. Although Mr. Markel sought to correct his error by negotiating with the sellers of the property, his efforts failed to resolve the issue, and eventually the sellers filed suit against the Steiners.
On October 19, 2004, after a failed attempt by the Steiners to join the Attorneys as additional defendants, the Steiners instituted a separate claim in Lancaster County. In their subsequent complaint, the Steiners brought claims for "professional malpractice," third party beneficiary, and breach of good faith and fair dealing against the Attorneys arising from the faulty preparation of the deed. Notably, the complaint did not contain a claim for breach of contract, and the language of the claims supporting the Steiners' claim for "professional malpractice" contained the required elements for a claim for legal malpractice sounding in tort.
Eventually, the Steiners agreed to discontinue their claim for breach of good faith and fair dealing. The Attorneys, in response to the Steiners' complaint, filed an answer and new matter, arguing that the Steiners' remaining claims were barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations. The Attorneys subsequently moved for judgment on the pleadings on this basis, and the trial court dismissed the Steiners' professional malpractice claim as time-barred. The Steiners' remaining claim was likewise dismissed, and the Steiners thereafter abandoned any claim premised upon a third-party beneficiary theory. The Steiners sought reconsideration of the court's dismissal of their professional malpractice claim, contending that the statute of limitations on their claim had been tolled due to the Attorneys' fraudulent concealment of their actions, but the trial court declined their request for reconsideration. At no time did the Steiners argue that their complaint contained a breach of contract claim.
On appeal, the Steiners again argued only that their professional malpractice claim against the Attorneys should have been tolled by the Attorneys' concealment of their actions. The Superior Court reversed the trial court and determined, sua sponte, that the Steiners' complaint contained a timely breach of contract claim, in spite of the Steiners' failure to raise this argument before the trial court or on appeal.
The Supreme Court granted allocator to address the issue of whether the Superior Court may, on its own, determine that a complaint contains a cause of action which the plaintiffs themselves never previously asserted before the trial court or on appeal. The Court concluded that the Superior Court lacks the authority to decide, sua sponte, that a "professional malpractice" claim sounds in contract rather than tort when the plaintiffs never previously asserted their intention to make such a claim.
The Court's conclusion was premised upon two bases. First, the Court determined that the Steiners failed to preserve for appeal the issue of whether their complaint contained a breach of contract claim. Observing that the Steiners never raised this argument before the trial court, the Supreme Court emphasized that this omission resulted in a waiver of the Steiners' right to raise the issue before the Superior Court. The Supreme Court further noted that the Steiners' Rule 1925(b) statement of issues for appeal was noticeably lacking any assertion that the Steiners intended to bring a breach of contract claim. Absent the assertion of such a claim at the trial court level, the Steiners waived their ability to raise the argument before an appellate court.
Second, the Court rejected the Steiners' contention that, pursuant to Cardenas v. Schober, 2001 PA Super 253, 783 A.2d 317 (Pa. Super. 2001), the trial court was obligated to review their complaint for "any theory" under which their complaint might proceed. The Court dismissed the Steiners' contention that the Cardenas Court "discovered" a previously unpled cause of action, and that in keeping with the Cardenas line of precedent, the Superior Court appropriately evaluated the Steiners' entire complaint to locate a viable cause of action. The fact that the Steiners never raised the cause of action themselves, they argued, should be of no consequence. Noting that the Cardenas plaintiffs consistently raised the same claims throughout the course of their litigation, and that the Superior Court did not take it upon itself to locate a previously unpled claim to salvage the Cardenas' complaint, the Supreme Court observed that the Steiners' argument runs contrary to Pennsylvania's fact pleading requirements, which make it incumbent upon a plaintiff to separately state each cause of action raised in a complaint. The Court reasoned that if plaintiffs themselves do not know the nature of their claims, the defendants cannot reasonably be expected to respond to such claims, nor can courts undertake their judicial decision-making role in an orderly fashion.
The Steiner decision clearly serves as a warning to plaintiffs that the court can no longer salvage a complaint by gleaning from the allegations a cause of action that the plaintiffs themselves never considered. Rather, it is incumbent upon plaintiffs to adhere to Pennsylvania's well-established pleading requirements and apprise both the defendants and the court of the claims the plaintiffs intend to make.
* Lauren, an associate in our Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, office, can be reached at (717) 651-3703 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense Digest, Vol. 15, No. 3, September 2009