Villani v. Seibert, No. 66 MAP 2016

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtCHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR
Citation159 A.3d 478
Parties Jean Louise VILLANI, Individually and in her Capacity as Personal Representative of the Estate of Guerino Villani, Deceased v. John SEIBERT, Jr. and Mary Seibert Frederick John Seibert, Jr. and Mary Seibert v. Jean Louise Villani and Thomas D. Schneider, Esquire Appeal of: Frederick John Seibert, Jr. and Mary Seibert
Decision Date26 April 2017
Docket NumberNo. 66 MAP 2016

159 A.3d 478

Jean Louise VILLANI, Individually and in her Capacity as Personal Representative of the Estate of Guerino Villani, Deceased
v.
John SEIBERT, Jr. and Mary Seibert

Frederick John Seibert, Jr. and Mary Seibert
v.
Jean Louise Villani and Thomas D. Schneider, Esquire

Appeal of: Frederick John Seibert, Jr. and Mary Seibert

No. 66 MAP 2016

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

ARGUED: December 6, 2016
DECIDED: April 26, 2017


Jeffrey B. Albert, Esq., for Nicholas O. Brown, Amicus Curiae.

Anthony Salvatore Cottone, Esq., Burns White, LLC, for The Professional Liability Defense Federation, Amicus Curiae.

H. Robert Fiebach, Esq., Cozen O'Connor, for Pennsylvania Bar Ass'n, Amicus Curiae.

Bruce Richard Beemer, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, Joshua D. Shapiro, Esq., for Attorney General's Office, Participants.

Peter Michael Newman, Esq., Mark William Tanner, Esq., Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelemter Tanner Weinstock & Dodig LLP, for Mary Seibert and Frederic John Seibert, Jr., Appellants.

Guy Anthony Donatelli, Esq., Lamb McErlane, PC, for Jean Louise Villiani, Appellee.

Paul Christopher Troy, Esq., Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer, L.L.P., for Thomas D. Schneider, Appellee.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

OPINION

CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR

In this interlocutory direct appeal by permission, we consider whether a legislative enactment recognizing a cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings infringes upon this Court's constitutionally prescribed power to regulate the practice of law, insofar as such wrongful-use actions may be advanced against attorneys.

The underlying litigation arose out of a land-ownership dispute between Jean Louse Villani, who was a co-plaintiff with her late husband until his death, and defendants John Seibert, Jr. and his mother, Mary Seibert ("Appellants"). Appellants prevailed in both an initial quiet title action and ensuing ejectment proceedings. During the course of this dispute, the Villanis were represented by Thomas D. Schneider, Esquire ("Appellee").

Subsequently, Appellants notified Mrs. Villani and Appellee that they intended to pursue a lawsuit for wrongful use of civil proceedings based upon Mrs. Villani's and Appellee's invocation of the judicial process to raise purportedly groundless claims. In November 2012, Mrs. Villani countered by commencing her own action seeking a judicial declaration vindicating her position that she did nothing wrong and bore no liability to Appellants. Appellants proceeded, as they had advised that they would do, to file a complaint naming Ms. Villani and Appellee as defendants. The declaratory judgment complaint having been lodged in Chester County, but the ensuing wrongful-use action being filed

159 A.3d 480

in Philadelphia, a decision was made to coordinate the matters in the Chester County court.

Appellee interposed preliminary objections to Appellants' complaint. As is relevant here, he contended that the statutory scheme embodying a cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings, commonly referred to as the "Dragonetti Act,"1 is unconstitutional.2 Appellee relied on Article V, Section 10(c) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which invests in this Court the power to prescribe general rules "governing practice, procedure and the conduct of all courts," as well as "admission to the bar and to practice law," while directing that "[a]ll laws shall be suspended to the extent that they are inconsistent with rules prescribed under these provisions." PA. CONST. art. V, § 10 (c). He also stressed that this Court has characterized its constitutional and inherent powers to supervise the conduct of lawyers as being exclusive. See, e.g. , Pa.R.D.E. 103 ; Commonwealth v. Stern , 549 Pa. 505, 510, 701 A.2d 568, 570 (1997).

Centrally, Appellee portrayed the Dragonetti Act as an unconstitutional incursion by the General Assembly upon the Court's power under Article V, Section 10(c). Given this asserted defect, he claimed that attorneys should be immunized from any liability under these statutory provisions. In support, Appellee referenced a series of cases in which this Court had stricken legislative enactments on the basis that those statutes intruded on the Court's constitutionally prescribed powers. See Memorandum of Law in Support of Preliminary Objections in Seibert v. Villani ("Defendant's Memorandum"), No. 2012–09795 (C.P. Chester), at 7–9 (citing Beyers v. Richmond , 594 Pa. 654, 937 A.2d 1082 (2007) (plurality), Shaulis v. Pa. State Ethics Comm'n , 574 Pa. 680, 833 A.2d 123 (2003), Gmerek v. State Ethics Comm'n , 569 Pa. 579, 807 A.2d 812 (2002) (equally divided Court), Stern , 549 Pa. 505, 701 A.2d 568, Snyder v. UCBR , 509 Pa. 438, 502 A.2d 1232 (1985), Wajert v. State Ethics Comm'n , 491 Pa. 255, 420 A.2d 439 (1980), and In re Splane , 123 Pa. 527, 16 A. 481 (1889) ).

Appellee also observed that, in defining the contours of liability for wrongful use of civil proceedings, the Legislature fashioned a "probable cause" standard that permits a lawyer acting in good faith to proceed with litigation, where he or she "reasonably believes that under [the supporting] facts the claim may be valid under the existing or developing law." 42 Pa.C.S. § 8352(1). According to Appellee, however, such prescription clashes with the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct promulgated by this Court, which authorize attorneys to advance good faith arguments for "extension, modification or reversal of existing law." Pa.R.P.C. § 3.1 (emphasis added). It was his position that the asserted

159 A.3d 481

difference "surely represents an intrusion by the legislature into the exclusive power of the judiciary that is prohibited under Article V, Section 10(c)." Defendant's Memorandum at 11.

Furthermore, Appellee took issue with the Dragonetti Act's incorporation of subjective standards. See, e.g. , 42 Pa.C.S. § 8352(3) (defining another contour of "probable cause" as encompassing a good-faith belief that litigation "is not intended to merely harass or maliciously injure the opposite party"). He contrasted such subjectivity with the more objective litmus established under Rule of Professional Conduct 3.1. Pa.R.P.C. 3.1 ("A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law." (emphasis added)). Appellee opined that the statute's focus on subjective motivation "means, as a practical matter, that summary disposition is exceedingly difficult." Defendant's Memorandum at 12. He concluded that, "[o]nce again, the legislature violates Article V, section 10(c) by purporting to regulate attorney conduct through different standards than those selected by the Supreme Court." Id.

In a similar line of argument, Appellee claimed that the Act's prescription for monetary damages should be viewed as a further intrusion into this Court's exclusive province. In this regard, Appellee explained that the Rules of Disciplinary Enforcement, also promulgated by this Court, establish the procedures for addressing violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, encompassing all stages from the investigation of an allegation of inappropriate conduct to the final disposition of a complaint by this Court, as well as delineating all available forms of discipline. See Pa.R.D.E. 204 –208. Appellee commented that: "Nowhere do the disciplinary rules permit an opposing party to seek monetary damages from an attorney." Defendant's Memorandum at 12. According to Appellee, the only tribunal authorized to address any and all grievances against attorneys is the Disciplinary Board, which functions under the Supreme Court's oversight. See id. (citing Pa.R.D.E. 205 –207 ). "In short," he proclaimed, "the concept of a lawsuit against an attorney for money damages based on his conduct in a civil case is repugnant to Article V, section 10(c)." Defendant's Memorandum at 13; accord id. ("It is for the judiciary to sanction attorneys for bringing an action that is purportedly baseless or for engaging in other inappropriate conduct.").

In response, Appellants defended the Dragonetti Act as substantive remedial legislation designed, for the benefit of victims, to redress wrongs committed by those pursuing frivolous litigation. Appellants explained that it has long been the law of the Commonwealth that a lawyer may be liable for tortious conduct committed in his professional capacity. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Preliminary Objections in Seibert , No. 2012–09795 ("Plaintiff's Memorandum"), at 5 (citing Adelman v. Rosenbaum , 133 Pa.Super. 386, 391–92, 3 A.2d 15, 18 (1938), for the proposition that the defendant in a common law action for malicious use of process "cannot invoke the plea of privilege as an attorney acting for a client" because "malicious action is not sheltered by any privilege"); accord Dietrich Indus., Inc. v. Abrams , 309 Pa.Super. 202, 208, 455 A.2d 119, 123 (1982) ("An attorney who knowingly prosecutes a groundless action to accomplish a malicious purpose may be held accountable in an action for malicious

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24 practice notes
  • Kozel v. Kozel, Civil Action No.: 7:16–cv–01672–JMC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • March 8, 2018
    ...Matter of Larsen , 532 Pa. 326, 616 A.2d 529, 587 (1992) ; see also 42 Pa. C. S. §§ 8351 –54 (1980); Villani v. Seibert , ––– Pa. ––––, 159 A.3d 478, 499 (2017) (analyzing constitutionality of the Dragonetti Act). "Pursuant to the Act, an attorney (or any other person) ‘who takes part in th......
  • Yocum v. Commonwealth, No. 74 MM 2015
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • May 25, 2017
    ...an effort to 161 A.3d 246avoid conflicts of interest—simply because they are attorneys. P.J.S. , 723 A.2d at 178. Cf. Villani v. Seibert , 159 A.3d 478, 492, 2017 WL 1489048, at *13 (Pa. 2017) (this Court should not "per se immunize attorneys, as attorneys" from civil liability under the Dr......
  • Raynor v. D'Annunzio, No. 35 EAP 2019
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2020
    ...law tort of malicious prosecution has been codified and modified as a statutory cause of action") and Villani v. Seibert , 639 Pa. 58, 159 A.3d 478, 491-93 (2017) (Dragonetti Act is not an unconstitutional infringement by legislature on judiciary's power to regulate attorney conduct). The c......
  • Segal v. Strausser Enters., Inc., CIVIL ACTION NO. 07-4647
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • June 12, 2019
    ...forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 8353. Adams v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 2017 WL 1355421, at *2 (E.D.Page 22 Pa. 2017); see also Villani v. Seibert, 159 A.3d 478, 491 (Pa. 2017). This Court also recognizes the Dragonetti plaintiff must show the Dragonetti defendant filed the underlying action with both......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
24 cases
  • Kozel v. Kozel, Civil Action No.: 7:16–cv–01672–JMC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • March 8, 2018
    ...Matter of Larsen , 532 Pa. 326, 616 A.2d 529, 587 (1992) ; see also 42 Pa. C. S. §§ 8351 –54 (1980); Villani v. Seibert , ––– Pa. ––––, 159 A.3d 478, 499 (2017) (analyzing constitutionality of the Dragonetti Act). "Pursuant to the Act, an attorney (or any other person) ‘who takes part in th......
  • Yocum v. Commonwealth, No. 74 MM 2015
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • May 25, 2017
    ...an effort to 161 A.3d 246avoid conflicts of interest—simply because they are attorneys. P.J.S. , 723 A.2d at 178. Cf. Villani v. Seibert , 159 A.3d 478, 492, 2017 WL 1489048, at *13 (Pa. 2017) (this Court should not "per se immunize attorneys, as attorneys" from civil liability under the Dr......
  • Raynor v. D'Annunzio, No. 35 EAP 2019
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2020
    ...law tort of malicious prosecution has been codified and modified as a statutory cause of action") and Villani v. Seibert , 639 Pa. 58, 159 A.3d 478, 491-93 (2017) (Dragonetti Act is not an unconstitutional infringement by legislature on judiciary's power to regulate attorney conduct). The c......
  • Segal v. Strausser Enters., Inc., CIVIL ACTION NO. 07-4647
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • June 12, 2019
    ...forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 8353. Adams v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 2017 WL 1355421, at *2 (E.D.Page 22 Pa. 2017); see also Villani v. Seibert, 159 A.3d 478, 491 (Pa. 2017). This Court also recognizes the Dragonetti plaintiff must show the Dragonetti defendant filed the underlying action with both......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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