Clarifying that post-trial motions need not be filed where the trial court issues an injunction that is immediately effective, the Supreme Court last week in Wolk v. Sch. Dist. of Lower Merion, __A. 3d __ (2018), 1 MAP 2018 (Dec. 11, 2018), reversed the Commonwealth Court’s finding of waiver for failure to file post-trial motions, remanded for consideration of the merits, and ended a school district’s procedural nightmare.  The court had granted allocatur to review the Commonwealth Court’s interpretation of the appellate and civil procedural rules relating to appeals of orders granting injunctive relief.

Wolk sued Lower Merion School District to attack a tax increase he alleged was in excess of the statutory maximum increase.  He also sought numerous other reliefs as part of a twelve-count complaint, including appointment of a trustee to supervise the district and its finances, imposition of a constructive trust, damages and a declaration that the system of school taxation was illegal. The School District filed preliminary objections.  While the preliminary objections were pending, Wolk filed a petition seeking an injunction to enjoin collection of the tax increase for 2016-2017. The trial court sent the parties a notice scheduling a “preliminary” injunction “hearing” at which testimony was taken, and two months later issued an opinion and order with immediate effect enjoining the school district from collecting that portion of the 2016-17 tax increase that allegedly was in excess of the statutory maximum increase.  The trial court did not address most of the other requests for relief in the complaint and did not address the district’s preliminary objections that raised claims of nonjusticiability, standing, and jurisdiction, which were pending before another judge of the same court of common pleas.  Throughout the trial court proceedings, the district’s statements and filings treated the matter as involving a preliminary injunction, although the trial court’s order phrased the immediate injunctive relief it granted as a permanent injunction effective immediately.

The School District filed an immediate appeal pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 311(a)(4).  Wolk moved to quash, arguing that the district had waived all issues by failing to file post-trial motions pursuant to Pa. R.C.P. 227.1.  Commonwealth Court granted the motion to quash in an unpublished opinion, citing as precedent its decision in City of Phila. v. New Life Evangelistic Church, 114 A. 3d 472 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2015), where it had determined that an injunction was permanent rather than preliminary because the common pleas court proceeding bore trial-like attributes, as did the hearing in this case.

In reversing, a unanimous Supreme Court pointed to fundamental problems with Commonwealth Court’s analysis. First, Pa. R.A.P. 311 (a)(4) “specifically authorizes an immediate interlocutory appeal as of right from an order granting an injunction” whether preliminary or permanent, unless in the case of a permanent injunction the effect is not immediate.  Here, it was clear the effect of the trial court’s order was immediate.

Second, by focusing on whether the proceedings below had trial-like attributes, Commonwealth Court in New Life Evangelistic Church and in the present case failed to consider the procedural posture of the case and its effect on the requirement to file post-trial motions:

In response to the rationale of the Commonwealth Court, premised on the New Life Evangelistic Church decision, we believe that better clarity can be achieved, relative to non-jury matters, by focusing, in the first instance, on the stage of the proceedings rather than whether a trial-like proceeding may have been conducted.  In this regard, it is essential, as concerns a non-jury trial, that “the decision” has been issued.  Pa. R.C.P. No. 227.1 (c)(2) (requiring the filing of post-trial motions within ten days after “the filing of the decision in the case of a trial without a jury” (emphasis added).  Where “the decision” in the case has not yet issued, Rule 227.1 is not implicated.  And, as the District stresses, the “decision” in a non-jury case is the decision that disposes of all claims for relief.

Slip op. at 15-16 (footnote omitted).

The Court also had granted allocatur on the question whether a trial court may convert a preliminary injunction hearing into a permanent injunction hearing without the consent of the parties. It observed that “the scenarios in which an additional hearing could be obviated, in the absence of agreement, should be infrequent,” that such circumstances “cannot arise from the sort of disorderliness manifested in the present case,” but that the Court is not “at this juncture, prepared to say that a court may never do so in the absence of” agreement of the parties, given that “there may be scenarios in which a proponent of an injunction would fail to proffer any additional material evidence to be considered by the court, upon an appropriate request for such a proffer.”  Slip op. at 19.

What is clear from the Supreme Court’s opinion is that although there was no basis for a finding of waiver under the facts presented in this case, the procedural issues raised – appealability of injunction orders, distinguishing between preliminary and final injunctions, and the triggering events for filing post-trial motions – create potential waiver traps that turn on procedural nuances that demand informed analysis.

About the Author:

Kevin McKeon, partner at Hawke, McKeon & Sniscak, LLP, represents a diverse array of clients before Pennsylvania state agencies, and state and federal appellate courts. A co-author of West’s Pennsylvania Appellate Practice and immediate past chair of the Pennsylvania Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee, Kevin uses his comprehensive knowledge of Pennsylvania appellate procedural rules to guide clients through complex appellate proceedings.