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THOMAS C. CLARK v. CHESTER H. TROUTMAN (12/10/85)

decided: December 10, 1985.

THOMAS C. CLARK, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, RICHARD T. NORNHOLD, SHERIFF, RICHARD G. SCHUCK, PROTHONOTARY AND CLERK OF COURTS OF SNYDER COUNTY, APPELLEES,
v.
CHESTER H. TROUTMAN, GUY R. MITTERLING AND STANLEY B. WILLIAMS, COMMISSIONERS OF SNYDER COUNTY AND T.W. ERDLEY, TREASURER OF SNYDER COUNTY, APPELLANTS



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania entered December 15, 1983, No. 1262 C.D. 1982, reversing the Order of May 4, 1982 of the court of Common Pleas of the 17th Judicial District, Snyder County Branch, No. 991-1978. 79 Pa. Commw. Ct. 83, Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Hutchinson, J., filed a concurring opinion in which McDermott, J., joined.

Author: Flaherty

[ 509 Pa. Page 338]

OPINION OF THE COURT

The issue presented involves applicability of the doctrine of issue preclusion to an action to stay execution of and open a judgment which, although valid on its face when entered, was based upon an erroneous conclusion of law as determined by a subsequent pronouncement of this Court.

Appellees held the offices of district attorney, sheriff and prothonotary/clerk of courts of Snyder County, a county of the seventh class, on the effective date of Act 223 of 1976, Act of October 7, 1976, P.L. 1101. That Act provided immediate salary increases to commissioners, sheriffs, treasurers, controllers and auditors, part-time district attorneys, recorders of deeds, registers of wills, prothonotaries and clerks of courts, coroners and jury commissioners of counties of the second through eighth classes "when permitted

[ 509 Pa. Page 339]

    by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." In 1978, appellees brought an action in mandamus to compel appellants, Snyder County's commissioners and treasurer, to pay appellees increases in salary in accordance with Act 223. Appellants defended the action on the ground that mid-term salary raises to county officers contravened Art. III § 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. That provision states: "No law shall extend the term of any public officer, or increase or diminish his salary or emoluments, after his election or appointment." Similar disputes had arisen elsewhere in the Commonwealth; and, in reliance upon a decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County, on November 21, 1978, Common Pleas Court held PA. CONST. Art. III, § 27 inapplicable to salaries of county officials, granted declaratory judgment in favor of appellees and directed appellants to pay increased salaries under Act 223. No appeal was taken.

Appellants complied with the November 21st order until the pay period ending July 6, 1979 when they again refused to pay salary increases under Act 223. On June 29, 1979, this Court had decided that PA. CONST. Art. III, § 27 did indeed prohibit payment of the increases in salaries prescribed in Act 223 to county officers who already held office when Act 223 was enacted. Bakes v. Snyder, 486 Pa. 80, 403 A.2d 1307 (1979). Based on this Court's decision in Bakes, supra, appellants ceased paying salaries at the increased rates. Appellees issued a writ of execution for the difference between salaries due under Act 223 and salaries actually paid. Seeking relief from liability for payment of salary increases for pay periods ending after our decision in Bakes, appellants subsequently filed a petition to stay execution and open judgment. The Court of Common Pleas sustained appellants' petition. Commonwealth Court reversed, reasoning the question of appellees' entitlement to salary increases was res judicata, Clark v. Troutman, 79 Pa. Commw.Ct. 83, 469 A.2d 328 (1983). For the reasons that follow we reverse.

[ 509 Pa. Page 340]

The term "res judicata" is often sweepingly used, by courts and litigants alike, to refer to the various ways in which a judgment in one action will have a binding effect in a later action. "Res judicata" encompasses the modern principle of issue preclusion (traditionally known as estoppel), which is the common law rule that a final judgment forecloses relitigation in a later action involving at least one of the original parties, of an issue of fact or law which was actually litigated and which was necessary to the original judgment. State Hospital for Criminal Insane v. Consolidated Water Supply Co., 267 Pa. 29, 110 A. 281 (1920). The purposes of the rule are the protection of litigants from the dual burden of relitigating an issue with the same party or his privy and the promotion of judicial economy through prevention of needless litigation. Nemo debet bis vexari pro una et eadem cause; interest reipublicae res judicatas non rescindi. Finality of litigation is essential so that parties may rely on judgments in ordering their private affairs and so that the moral force of court judgments will not be undermined.

Instantly we are concerned with the applicability of issue preclusion in a second action brought by parties who were the defendants in the original action, to relitigate the constitutionality of Act 223 salary increases to persons who were the original plaintiffs in the original action. Commonwealth Court's decision denying relief is in accord with the general rule of issue preclusion: When an issue of law is actually litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment, and the determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive in a subsequent action between the same parties, whether on the same or a different claim. Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 27 (1982).

Appellants argue for an exception to the normal rule of estoppel in this case based upon the change in controlling law announced by this Court in Bakes, supra, and on the disparity of treatment which will be afforded appellees who, as the result of Bakes, will be the only county officers in the Commonwealth, elected prior to Act 223, who receive

[ 509 Pa. Page 341]

    increases in salary under that Act. There is ample support in the law for appellants' position that estoppel will not bar an action to ...


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