Donatelli v. Haas, 59 WDA 2022

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtDUBOW, J.
PartiesANTHONY L. DONATELLI AND MICHELE DONATELLI, HUSBAND AND WIFE v. SIDNEY G. HAAS, JR. Appellant
Docket Number59 WDA 2022,J-A22020-22
Decision Date22 November 2022

ANTHONY L. DONATELLI AND MICHELE DONATELLI, HUSBAND AND WIFE
v.

SIDNEY G. HAAS, JR.
Appellant

No. 59 WDA 2022

No. J-A22020-22

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 22, 2022


NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION - SEE SUPERIOR COURT I.O.P. 65.37

Appeal from the Order Entered December 21, 2021 In the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County Civil Division at No(s): 21-10409, 21-20894

Joseph D. Seletyn, Esq.

BEFORE: OLSON, J., DUBOW, J., and COLINS, J. [*]

MEMORANDUM

DUBOW, J.

Appellant, Sidney G. Haas, Jr., appeals from the December 21, 2021 Order entered in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas denying his petition to open default judgment in this trespass action. After careful review, we affirm.

The relevant facts and procedural history are as follows. On June 9, 2021, Appellees, Anthony L. Donatelli and Michele Donatelli, filed a Complaint for Trespass alleging that Appellant, their neighbor, had been encroaching and

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trespassing upon their property by storing heavy equipment on it.[1] Appellees attached to the complaint a survey report prepared by Graff Surveying, LLC ("Graff") verifying the property boundary line. Appellees sought to eject Appellant from their property and to have a permanent injunction entered against him.

On June 17, 2021, the Butler County Sheriff's Department served Appellant with the complaint by hand-delivery. The complaint included the required Notice to Defend, informing Appellant that he must respond to the complaint within 20 days after service or judgment may be entered against him. Accordingly, Appellant had until July 7, 2021, to act in response to the complaint. Appellant did not take any docketed action during this period to respond to the complaint.

On July 8, 2021, Appellees' counsel mailed to Appellant a Notice of Praecipe to Enter Judgment by Default. Counsel also mailed a copy of the notice to Attorney John P. Senich, an attorney allegedly engaged in discussions with Appellant regarding possible representation in this case. Attorney Senich did not, however, enter his appearance or file any documents on Appellant's behalf.

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On July 22, 2021, the Butler County prothonotary entered default judgment against Appellant and sent Appellant a Notice of Entry of Default Judgment. That same day, Appellees filed a Motion to Assess Damages and for Equitable Relief in Enforcement of Judgment Against [Appellant].

On July 29, 2021, Appellant hand-delivered to the Butler County prothonotary a letter dated July 23, 2021. In the letter, Appellant stated, inter alia, that the trial court should dismiss all charges against him because he never received a certified letter or written notice that a case had been filed against him. The letter did not contain any proposed answer, new matter, or preliminary objections to the complaint, or raise any meritorious defense to the allegations asserted in the complaint.

Also on July 29, 2021, the trial court entered an order directing Appellant to remove the heavy equipment and other items from Appellees' property. The court scheduled a hearing on Appellees' motion to assess damages for November 5, 2021.

On September 23, 2021, more than two months after the entry of default judgment, Appellant filed a Petition to Open Default Judgment. In the petition to open, Appellant acknowledged that on June 17, 2021, he received by personal service Appellees' complaint with the attached notice to defend. He asserted that, after receiving the complaint, he consulted Attorney Senich, whom he mistakenly believed was representing him. He averred that, when he received the July 8, 2021 notice of default, he continued to believe that Attorney Senich was representing him. He explained that after finally realizing

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that Attorney Senich was not representing him, he sent the letter dated July 23, 2021, to the court addressing some of the allegations raised in the complaint and in the motion to assess damages.

In support of his petition to open, Appellant claimed that his failure to timely file an answer was excusable because he is an "older, pro se litigant that did not understand the seriousness of what was happening" and that he thought Attorney Senich was representing him. Petition, 9/23/21, at ¶ 19-20. He also claimed that he had a meritorious defense, which he set forth in an Answer and New matter, that he was not storing equipment on Appellees' property, that the Graff survey was inaccurate, and that he possessed the land in question through adverse possession.[2] Appellant did not attach any evidence supporting his claim that the Graff survey was inaccurate.

The next day, the court issued a rule to show cause directing Appellees to file an answer to Appellant's petition to open within 30 days, granting the parties the opportunity to take depositions, and scheduling a hearing on the petition.

On October 20, 2021, Appellees filed an answer to Appellant's petition to open raising disputed issues of material fact and asserting that Appellant's petition was untimely. Appellees also filed a reply to Appellant's new matter, including, as an exhibit, a letter from the prior owner of Appellees' property,

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Gary L. Risch, Sr., acknowledging that he had permitted Appellant to "park some of his vehicles on the rear side of the property," denying that he had given Appellant the property, and averring that Appellant was aware that Mr. Risch had not given him the property.[3]

On October 29, 2021, Appellees deposed Appellant. Relevantly, Appellant testified that he had previously been involved in "a dozen" lawsuits and had been deposed before.[4] He also testified that in some of those suits he had represented himself and in others he had retained counsel. Appellant explained that he was aware of the judgment entered against him but because it was not a monetary judgment, he thought he "had to wait to see what happened."[5] He further testified that he prepared and filed his own letter with the prothonotary because Attorney Senich was not representing him.[6]

Appellant also testified that he had obtained a survey of his property in the 1970s and that it differs from the Graff survey. He conceded that he "technically can't read" a survey and is not capable of comparing maps and surveys because he is not a surveyor.[7] Nevertheless, he concluded that

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because of the differences he observed between the surveys and his comparison of the Graff survey to a Google map satellite image provided to him by the Butler County tax office, the Graff survey was, inaccurate.

On November 17, 2021, the parties deposed Attorney Senich. Attorney Senich testified that Appellant contacted him about the instant litigation in late June or early July of 2021. He testified that Appellees' counsel sent him a copy of Appellees' complaint and that same day he visited Appellant at home to take pictures of existing property boundary markers and to gather more information. At that time, Appellant provided him with a copy of the complaint. Attorney Senich informed Appellant that he did not practice this type of law but that he would take a look at the complaint. He also testified that, at that time, he told Appellant that if the suit concerned assets owned by Appellant's son, whose estate Attorney Senich was representing, he could be involved, but if not, "I can't represent you here."[8] He testified that he did not agree to represent Appellant at that point. He further testified that he informed Appellees' counsel that he did not represent Appellant. Attorney Senich testified that shortly before he went on a one-week vacation that began on July 17, 2021, he gave Appellant the names of other law firms to contact to engage representation. He testified that on August 5, 2021, he confirmed by letter to Appellant...

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