Failure to provide authentication of foreign judgment; waiver of subject matter jurisdiction

Domus, Inc. v. Signature Building Systems of PA, LLC, 224 A.3d 31 (Pa. Super. 2019), allocatur granted September 9, 2020, appeal docket 54 MAP 2020

Under the Pennsylvania Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (“UEFJA”), 42 Pa.C.S. § 4306, proper authentication of the underlying documentation of a foreign judgment is required to enforce such judgment in Pennsylvania. The party seeking enforcement can authenticate the foreign judgment records either under federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, or Pennsylvania law, 42 Pa.C.S. § 5328. To accomplish this authentication, both federal and Pennsylvania law require a separate certificate to accompany the foreign judgment.

In the instant case, Signature Building Systems of PA, LLC (“Signature”) entered into a contract with Domus, Inc. (“Domus”) to provide modular units in a residential construction project at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Domus alleged that Signature’s units were defective and as a result, Domus suffered damages. Domus also filed suit against PFS Corporation (PFS), the third-party inspection entity that was responsible for inspecting and certifying the condition of Signature’s units. PFS added Signature as a party-defendant via a third-party complaint. As Signature has no offices in New Hampshire, all service in the suit was made to its Lackawanna County, PA location.  In June 2012, New Hampshire entered a notice of default against Signature for PFS’ third-party claims. In the same suit, Domus filed a third-party complaint against Signature in June 2013. All service was still made to the Lackawanna County location. In July 2013, the New Hampshire trial court declined to issue a default notice against Signature. Domus was given an extension for service upon Signature and Signature was given a deadline by the court to enter a written appearance form. Signature did not enter a written appearance and Domus effected service. In December 2013, the New Hampshire trial court entered default against Signature for Domus’ third-party claim. Domus motioned for a hearing for final judgment, which resulted in the New Hampshire trial court entering damages against Signature. In 2015, Domus filed to levy on the New Hampshire default judgment on Signature’s property in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County. Signature filed a motion to strike the foreign judgment. The trial court issued a rule to show cause. After extensive discovery, briefing, and a hearing, the trial court denied Signature’s motion. Signature appealed to the Superior Court.

The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision to deny Signature’s motion to strike the foreign judgment, finding that Domus’ failure to authenticate the New Jersey default judgment was a fatal defect under the UEFJA and Pennsylvania’s court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, and therefore could not be waived. The Superior Court reasoned:

The issue of whether the lack of this certificate under § 5328(a) is fatal for the purposes of authentication under the UEFJA appears to be an issue of first impression, and our review of the relevant case law has uncovered no opinions squarely on point. However, the statutory language of the UEFJA predicates the co-equal treatment of foreign judgments in Pennsylvania upon complete adherence to these authentication procedures. [Citation omitted]. Moreover, this Court has held that the requirements of the UEFJA are not discretionary, and we have espoused a policy of strictly interpreting the requirements set forth under the UEFJA. [Citation omitted] (rejecting an invitation to “artificially . . . create a discretionary standard that our legislature did not intend” under the UEFJA). As such, we conclude that the authentication requirements contained within the UEFJA must be viewed strictly in this context and are not “discretionary.”

Based on the foregoing discussion, Domus’ failure to attach a certification pursuant to either § 1738 or § 5328(a) undermines its attempts to authenticate the New Hampshire default judgment pursuant to the UEFJA. [Citation omitted]. As a result of this deficiency, the Pennsylvania trial court lacked jurisdiction from the inception of Domus’ efforts to enforce the New Hampshire judgment in Pennsylvania.

Slip Op. at 12-13.

Although joining the Majority, Judge Strassburger believed that the insufficient authentication was a technicality that could have a remedy. He reasoned that, like the ability to substantially comply with Pa.R.Civ.P 1024 (every pleading with an averment of fact outside of the record or a denial of fact must contain a verification) when a pleading is improperly verified, stemming from the Superior Court’s precedent rejecting the notion that a verification is required to invoke subject matter jurisdiction, an insufficient authentication could have a remedy instead of being classified as a fatal defect that waives subject matter jurisdiction. Concurring Sip Op. at 1-2.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to examine:

Did the Superior Court err in holding the failure to authenticate a foreign judgment pursuant to the requirements of the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 4306, deprives a trial court of subject matter jurisdiction such that a challenge to that failure may not be waived?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.