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[U] Orange Stones Co. v. Holsinger, Clark & Armstrong P.C.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 18, 2013

ORANGE STONES CO. F/K/A ALCAT REENTRY CENTERS, INC.,
v.
HOLSINGER, CLARK & ARMSTRONG P.C. AND SAMUEL CLARK, ESQ., APPEAL OF: ORANGE STONES CO., Appellant HOLSINGER, CLARK & ARMSTRONG, P.C. AND SAMUEL CLARK, ESQ., Appellees
v.
ORANGE STONES CO. F/K/A ALCAT REENTRY CENTERS, INC., AND KENNETH L. MOORE, APPEAL OF: ORANGE STONES CO., Appellant

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Order Entered October 18, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County Civil Division at No(s): 11799 CD 2010, 12576 CD 2008.

BEFORE: BOWES, LAZARUS, and COLVILLE, [*] JJ.

MEMORANDUM

BOWES, J.

Orange Stones Co., f/k/a ALCAT Reentry Centers, Inc. ("Orange Stones") appeals from the trial court's October 18, 2012 orders in an interpleader action at No. 12576 CD 2008 and breach of fiduciary/professional negligence lawsuit initiated at No. 11799 CD 2010. The October 18, 2012 orders entered in those cases clarify its February 22, 2012 orders in those actions. The trial court stated therein that its intent was to award attorneys' fees to Attorney Samuel Clark and the law firm of Holsinger, Clark, & Armstrong, P.C. (collectively "Law Firm") in the interpleader action, rather than in the professional negligence action. Orange Stones challenges the jurisdiction of the lower court to entertain such a motion, and further, to make what it characterizes as substantial changes to its February 22, 2012 orders after the orders were appealed. It contends further that, having failed to seek reconsideration of that order or file a timely appeal, Law Firm waived the right to challenge the orders. Since we view the trial court's clarification order as the correction of a formal error authorized under Pa.R.A.P. 1701(b)(1), we affirm.

We refer to our memoranda at Nos. 395 and 396 WDA 2012 for a complete recitation of the facts. For purposes of our review herein, it suffices to repeat that Kenneth L. Moore sought attorneys' fees at the conclusion of an interpleader action in which he prevailed, and the trial court awarded him fees and costs totaling $152, 417.24. Law Firm originally sought sanctions in the nature of attorneys' fees and costs in its preliminary objections to counterclaims filed in the interpleader action. The trial court ruled that sanctions were premature at that time, but Law Firm subsequently filed a petition for attorneys' fees and costs following the jury verdict. A hearing was conducted on attorneys' fees and other issues related to both the interpleader action and the professional negligence action on January 11, 2012. By order dated February 22, 2012, at No. 11799, the professional negligence action, the court awarded Law Firm $23, 742.10 in attorneys' fees, $1, 851.20 in costs, and $5, 000 for Attorney Clark's deductible, the precise amount of fees it had sought in the interpleader action. No fees were awarded in the interpleader action.

In its appeal to this Court from the dismissal of the breach of fiduciary duty/professional negligence action against Law Firm docketed at No. 395 WDA 2012, Orange Stones argued that the court erred in awarding attorneys' fees in that action as no petition had been filed, no hearing held, and the amount of the fees was unjustified by the legal services rendered.[1] In light of Orange Stones' contention in that appeal, Attorney Clark and Law Firm filed two motions for clarification with the trial court on September 10, 2012. Orange Stones moved to strike the motions, but the trial court refused. Following argument on October 16, 2012, the trial court granted the motions and clarified that it intended to award attorneys' fees to Law Firm in the interpleader action at No. 12576 CD 2008, not the breach of fiduciary duty/professional negligence action at No. 11799 CD 2010.

Orange Stones' consolidated appeals challenge the trial court's authority to clarify its order. Orange Stones claims that the motion for clarification was improper as the lower court had been divested of jurisdiction. While acknowledging that trial courts retain certain authority pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1701(b)(1)[2], Orange Stones cites Corabi v. Curtis Pub. Co., 262 A.2d 665 (Pa. 1970), for the proposition that the trial court lacked authority to make fundamental corrections in the record. Orange Stones characterizes the order clarifying the award of attorneys' fees as increasing the award from $600 to $30, 000 and calls it a fundamental correction of the record.

Law Firm counters that the clarification order did not alter or increase in any way the amount of attorneys' fees awarded. The court merely clarified that its intention was to award attorneys' fees to Law Firm in the interpleader action rather than in the professional negligence action. It maintains that the trial court had the power pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1701(b)(1) to correct what was merely a formal error. Law Firm directs our attention to our decision in First National Bank, N.A. v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co., 580 A.2d 799 (Pa.Super. 1990), where we affirmed the trial court's amendment of an order to include an award of attorneys' fees more than thirty days after entry of the order and the filing of an appeal. We reasoned that no discretion was involved and no fact-finding required; it was merely correction of a formal error. Law Firm maintains that in clarifying its February 22, 2012 orders, the trial court herein was not required to weigh new evidence or engage in fact-finding. By reviewing its opinions and pleadings, the court was able to discern its original intent in awarding the fees.[3]

We note preliminarily that the hearing on January 11, 2012, dealt with issues arising from both the interpleader action and the professional negligence action. The only testimony adduced regarding attorneys' fees related to those incurred by Law Firm in defense of the counterclaims filed by Orange Stones in the interpleader action. Mr. Moore elicited testimony from his trial counsel regarding the fees charged in that same action.

The trial court entered two orders dated February 22, 2012, filed of record on February 23, 2012, one at the interpleader action and the other at the second action against Law Firm. At the interpleader action, the trial court awarded attorneys' fees for Mr. Moore and stated that the issue of attorneys' fees for Law Firm was moot due to its award at No. 11799. In the order filed at No. 11799, the court awarded attorneys' fees of $23, 742.10, costs of $1, 851.20, and $5, 000 for the deductible.

It is apparent from our review of the record that the only claim for attorneys' fees actually before the court for consideration at that time related to the interpleader action, and that the trial court mistakenly entered the award at the professional negligence action. The amount of attorneys' fees awarded was unchanged by the clarification order.

With Orange Stones' filing of duplicative actions asserting virtually identical claims, we fully appreciate the challenge facing the trial court to keep the various actions straight. In our review of the voluminous record, we have discerned that the amount of attorneys' fees awarded reflects the time expended in the defense of the counterclaims filed against Law Firm in the interpleader action. Thus, we have no doubt that the trial court intended to award attorneys' fees for Law Firm in the interpleader action rather than in the professional negligence action. The issue is whether the trial court could clarify its intent pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1701(b)(1) after an appeal had been filed to this Court.

Pa.R.A.P. 1701, "Effect of Appeal Generally, " provides:

(a) General rule. Except as otherwise prescribed by these rules, after an appeal is taken or review of a quasijudicial order is sought, the trial court or other government unit may no longer proceed further in the matter.

Pa.R.A.P. 1701(a).

Exceptions to the Rule are delineated in subsection (b)(1). Even after an appeal is taken, the trial court is empowered to "take action to preserve the status quo, correct formal errors in papers, cause the record to be transcribed, filed and transmitted, grant leave in forma pauperis, grant supersedeas, and to take such other action permitted or required by these rules or otherwise ancillary to the appeal." Pa.R.A.P. 1701(b)(1).

We have interpreted the Rule 1701(b)(1) power to correct formal defects quite broadly. In Temtex Products, Inc. v. Kramer, 479 A.2d 500 (Pa.Super. 1984), we relied upon that subsection in finding that the trial court had jurisdiction to amend its earlier order to state that a substantial issue existed for purposes of an appeal. In J. Nevin White Lumber Co v. Sheriff, 431 A.2d 1190 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981), our sister court held that the trial court had authority under this Rule to vacate its final order and opinion and substitute a decree nisi, the correct designation. The court called it a change in form but not in substance.

In Fish v. Gosnell, 463 A.2d 1042, 1052 (Pa.Super. 1983), we held that the modification of a verdict pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1701(b)(1) to reflect pre-award interest under Pa.R.C.P. 238, even though it was done beyond the thirtieth day after entry of judgment, constituted a permissible correction to a formal error in the court's papers. Similarly, in Manack v. Sandlin, 812 A.2d 676, 681 (Pa.Super. 2002), we held the trial court had inherent power to enter a corrective order that accurately reflected the date of the non-jury trial and verdict even though more than thirty days had elapsed since entry of the original order and an appeal had been filed. In Commonwealth v. Klein, 781 A.2d 1133 (Pa. 2001), our Supreme Court held the trial court was acting within its authority when, after a notice of appeal was filed, it modified the defendant's sentence to correct an error regarding time already served in prison. The Court reasoned that, "even where the court would normally be divested of jurisdiction, a court may have the power to correct patent and obvious mistakes." Id. at 1135. Finally, in Hoag v. Hoag, 646 A.2d 578 (Pa.Super. 1994), affirmed by a split decision in Hoag v. Hoag, 664 A.2d 1354 (Pa. 1995), we treated an amended support order entered by the trial court after a final support order was entered and appeals were filed as an attempt by the trial court to clarify and correct its original order, and not as a substantial modification. In that case, the amended order slightly modified the amounts and schedules of payments.

In the instant case, the trial court was clarifying and correcting its original order. Contrary to Orange Stones' representation, the trial court did not increase the amount of the award; it merely entered the award at the correct related docket number. We see no procedural or jurisdictional impediment to the filing of a motion for clarification or the trial court's entry of a subsequent order clarifying its earlier order. This claim is without merit.

Orange Stones characterizes Law Firm's motion for clarification as a challenge to the February 22, 2012 order, and alleges that Law Firm waived it by not raising the issue below by filing a motion for reconsideration and a timely appeal. Initially, we note that Orange Stones' reliance upon Corabi v. Curtis Pub. Co., 262 A.2d 665 (Pa. 1970), is misplaced. That case does not inform our decision as it did not involve the application of Pa.R.A.P. 1701. Nor does it support the proposition that Law Firm waived the right to seek clarification. Corabi stands for the proposition that where an appellant failed to raise the issue in the trial court, we will not consider the issue on appeal. Orange Stones is the Appellant herein.

We do not view Law Firm's motions for clarification as challenges to the trial court's orders. Law Firm was not a party aggrieved by the award of attorneys' fees; it obtained the relief it sought, albeit in the wrong action. The motion for clarification was a proper vehicle to ascertain whether the trial court intended to award attorneys' fees in the professional negligence action or in the interpleader action.

Finally, Orange Stones reiterates herein the same argument it made in the appeal from the order dismissing the professional negligence action filed at No. 395 WDA 2012: that the trial court erred in awarding attorneys' fees in the interpleader action. We rejected that argument therein and our rationale need not be reiterated herein. See No. 395 WDA 2012.

Order affirmed.


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