November 8, 2017

By: Dennis Whitaker

We discussed the history of administrative agency appeals in an earlier post and have addressed waiver in various forms in several others. Although waiver is a more common occurrence than one might think (or hope) it is not the only preclusion doctrine that can trap the unwary. Commonwealth Court recently ordered publication of a previously unpublished decision in which the court discusses the negative effects of the failure to appeal a final administrative action, known as the doctrine of administrative finality. In Doheny v. Commonwealth, Dep’t of Trans., Bureau of Driver Licensing, ___ A.3d ___ (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017), No. 253 M.D. 2017, filed September 19, 2017, Senior Judge Pellegrini, writing for a panel including President Judge Leavitt and Judge Covey, held that Doheny’s failure to timely challenge two suspensions of his driver’s license precluded him from bringing any actions to challenge their effect.

Doheny was convicted of driving under the influence and of aggravated assault while driving under the influence. As a result, PennDOT sent two separate suspension notices each advising that Doheny’s license would be suspended for one year. One of the notices advised that the suspension was effective on August 7, 2013 and the other advised that the suspension was effective August 7, 2014. Each notice also advised that Doheny had a right to appeal within 30 days. Doheny appealed neither, allegedly because he assumed that one of the notices was redundant. PennDOT subsequently informed Doheny that he had consecutive one-year license suspensions and that his license would be restored on August 7, 2015. Doheny then sought to appeal the suspensions nunc pro tunc which the common pleas court granted. Before common pleas, Doheny argued that he should have been given only one suspension for his convictions, essentially contending that the convictions merged for purposes of the civil license suspension. The common pleas court denied Doheny’s appeal and he appealed to Commonwealth Court, which did not address the merits but held instead that common pleas erred by granting nunc pro tunc relief. The Supreme Court denied allocatur.

Doheny then filed a four-count, 260 paragraph civil action in the common pleas court, seeking monetary damages for violations of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3), as well as injunctive relief, all of which arose out of his original claim that he was only subject to a single one-year suspension rather than two consecutive one-year suspensions. PennDOT moved the action to federal district court and Doheny filed an amended complaint. On PennDOT’s motion the district court dismissed with prejudice. Doheny filed a motion for reconsideration and to alter or amend judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e), asking the district court to reconsider and vacate its dismissal order. The district court amended its previous dismissal order to reflect that Count I of the first amended complaint, pertaining to the statutory appeal, should not have been dismissed with prejudice, but declined to extend supplemental jurisdiction over it, as it was purely based in state law. The district court then remanded Count I of the first amended complaint to the common pleas court. PennDOT then filed preliminary objections arguing that the common pleas court lacked jurisdiction because Commonwealth Court has exclusive and original jurisdiction in matters against the Commonwealth and its agencies. Doheny stipulated that the common pleas court lacked jurisdiction and the matter was then transferred to Commonwealth Court.

PennDOT then filed preliminary objections arguing that Doheny’s action should be dismissed as barred by the doctrine of res judicata, where Doheny’s claims that he should have received a one-year suspension rather than two consecutive one-year suspensions were already decided when he failed to timely appeal the notice of suspension. Doheny responded that res judicata did not apply because, even though he did not appeal and the common pleas court addressed the merits, there was never a final judgment upon the merits because Commonwealth Court vacated the common pleas court’s order when it held that common pleas erred by granting nunc pro tunc relief.  Thus, Commonwealth Court was left to decide if Doheny’s failure to appeal his license suspensions precluded him from bringing a challenge to those suspensions in the court’s original jurisdiction.

The court began by noting that the doctrine of administrative finality prevents a collateral attack on an unappealed final administrative decision, and that PennDOT’s suspension of Doheny’s license was a final administrative decision that affected his personal or property rights and was thus subject to judicial review. Slip op. at 8-9, citing Dep’t of Env. Prot. v. Peters Twp. Sanitary Auth., 767 A.2d 601, 603 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2001). The court then cited the following passage from the seminal administrative finality decision, Dep’t of Env. Res. v. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 348 A.2d 765 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1975):

We agree that an aggrieved party has no duty to appeal but disagree that upon failure to do so, the party so aggrieved preserves to some indefinite future time in some indefinite future proceedings the right to contest an unappealed order. To conclude otherwise, would postpone indefinitely the vitality of administrative orders and frustrate the orderly operations of administrative law.

Id. at 767, Slip op. at 9. Using that rubric, the court found Doheny’s claims and the relief sought in his original jurisdiction action were effectively decided against him by his failure to file a timely appeal from the suspension notices. As he failed to appeal the administrative decisions underlying his original jurisdiction, Doheny was precluded from challenging them in a subsequent action.

The doctrine of administrative finality focuses on the failure of a person aggrieved by an administrative action to pursue a statutory remedy. Administrative finality, alone among the preclusion doctrines, does not require a final judgment on the merits in prior litigation; rather, the doctrine applies when one who is aggrieved by an administrative action, as was Doheny here aggrieved by the license suspension notices, fails to appeal that action at the first opportunity. The failure to do so renders the action final and forecloses any attack on its content or validity in any subsequent proceeding. In a series of posts over the next few weeks, we will explore the various preclusion doctrines, compare them with each other and offer strategies for avoiding their application to your client’s case. In the meanwhile, explore Pennsylvania Appellate Advocate for news & analysis from all three Pennsylvania appellate courts.

About the Author:

Dennis A. Whitaker, partner at Hawke, McKeon & Sniscak, LLP, is an experienced litigator with over 25 years of Commonwealth service.  Focusing on government appellate and original jurisdiction practice in state and federal courts, Dennis offers sound advice, creative solutions, and effective strategies to clients navigating the appeals process.