Is a Civil Contempt Action a “Civil Proceeding” for Purposes of the Dragonetti Act?; Standing

Raynor v. D’Annunzio, 205 A.3d 1252 (Pa. Super. 2019), allocatur granted Nov. 6, 2019, appeals dockets 35 EAP 2019 & 36 EAP 2019

The Supreme Court will consider whether a civil contempt action is a “civil proceeding” as contemplated by the Dragonetti Act and whether an attorney has standing to assert a cause of action under the Dragonetti Act when she was counsel for a party, but not a party, to the underlying civil action.

This case is the most recent chapter in contentious litigation arising from a  medical malpractice case involving failure to diagnosis the plaintiff’s lung cancer.  The trial judge in the malpractice case granted a pretrial motion to preclude testimony that the plaintiff was a smoker, but during direct examination the defendant’s expert nonetheless mentioned that she was. Following a defense verdict, Plaintiff’s counsel filed post-trial that among other reliefs  sought a finding of civil contempt against defendant’s trial counsel, Nancy Raynor, for allowing her witness to refer to the plaintiff’s cigarette use. Following a contempt hearing, the trial court ordered sanctions against Raynor in the unprecedented amount of $946,197. The Superior Court on appeal reversed the contempt order in its entirety  and vacated all sanctions against Raynor.  Raynor then sued the plaintiff’s lawyers, D’Annunzio, for violation of the Dragonetti Act and other claims related to pursuit of contempt sanctions against her.

 D’Annunzio filed preliminary objections arguing that, inter alia, Raynor and her firm lacked standing to bring a Dragonetti claim because they were not a party to the underlying civil malpractice action in which they were defense counsel; a demurrer to the Dragonetti claim because moving for sanctions or contempt does not constitute “procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings” within the meaning of the Dragonetti Act;  and that public policy prohibits a Dragonetti claim based on the pursuit of sanctions and/or contempt.  The trial court sustained D’Annunzio’s preliminary objections, concluding that “[r]equesting sanctions and/or finding of contempt as part of a post-trial motion does not constitute the ‘procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings’ under the Dragonetti Act because the request for sanctions, made in a post-trial motion, was not an action,” Slip Op. at 10, and that Raynor and her firm did not have standing to bring a cause of action under the Dragonetti Act because they were not parties to the underlying civil action.

Superior Court reversed, holding  that  a “civil proceeding” as contemplated by the Dragonetti act does include the initiation of contempt proceedings and accompanying sanction requests, reasoning that:

Here, appellees, initially in a post-trial motion, sought a finding of contempt against appellants and requested $1,349,063.67 in attorneys’ fees and costs. The trial court first granted appellees’ motion for a new trial, which we affirmed on November 4, 2013. See Sutch, 91 A.3d 1273 (unpublished memorandum). Following the remand of the record by this court, the trial court noted “that [appellees were] proceeding against Ms. Raynor in civil contempt for compensatory damages and under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 2503(7) (counsel fees as a sanction for dilatory, vexatious, and obdurate behavior).” Sutch, 142 A.3d at 56 (emphasis in original). The trial court subsequently held a hearing on March 27, 2014 and March 31, 2014, in order to determine whether Ms. Raynor was in civil contempt and/or was subject to sanctions. The trial court ultimately sanctioned appellants a total of $946,195.16. 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. In a fashion similar to a civil lawsuit, the parties exchanged pleadings, and the trial court held a hearing, issued an adjudication of contempt, and imposed sanctions. Accordingly, we find that seeking an adjudication of contempt and requesting sanctions constitutes procurement, initiation, or continuation of civil proceedings as contemplated by the Dragonetti Act. Therefore, the trial court committed an error of law, and we reverse. While we make no determination as to whether appellants will be successful on the merits, they are entitled to their day in court.

Slip Op. at 14-5 (footnote omitted).

Superior Court also held that it did not matter that Raynor and her firm were not original parties to the underlying medical malpractice suit that resulted in Raynor’scontempt and sanctions, because “appellants were the defendants in the contempt proceedings that give rise to the Dragonetti cause of action presently before us and were the parties against whom sanctions were imposed, we find that appellants have standing.” Slip Op. at 15-16.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider:

 1. Whether a request for contempt/sanctions against counsel (among others) contained within a motion for post-trial relief constitutes “civil proceedings” actionable under the Dragonetti Act?

 2. Did the Superior Court attempt to create new Pennsylvania law — in contravention of a number of appellate decisions — giving [respondent], a disqualified attorney, standing to assert a cause of action under the Dragonetti Act when she was not a party to the underlying action?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.