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[U], Inc. v., Inc.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 25, 2013



Appeal from the Order entered August 13, 2012, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division, at No(s): 03691



ALLEN, J., Inc., ("Appellant"), appeals from the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of, Inc., R.M. Hollenshead Auto Sales & Leasing, Inc., and Robert M. Hollenshead (collectively "Hollenshead"). We affirm.

The trial court summarized the factual and procedural history of this case as follows:

[Appellant] was, and may still be, involved in the business of buying and selling automobiles. [Hollenshead] was, and apparently is still, a shareholder of [Appellant]. He is also a principal of defendant R.M. Hollenshead Auto Sales & Leasing, Inc. ("RMH"), which is also involved in the sale of automobiles.
Beginning in 2000, [Appellant] developed an internet application designed to establish a guaranteed trade-in value for any used car (the "Disputed invention"). At that time, [Hollenshead] was a high-level employee of [Appellant] pursuant to a written employment agreement in which he agreed that all inventions developed while he was employed [by Appellant] belonged to [Appellant].
In May 2001, [Hollenshead] resigned as CEO of [Appellant]. Beginning in 2002, [Hollenshead] allegedly began improperly to use the Disputed Invention for the benefit of his own company, RMH. [Hollenshead] [has] allegedly continued to use the Disputed Invention in their business through the present time.
In November 2007, [Appellant] filed suit against [Hollenshead] and others in federal court (the "Federal Action"). In the Federal Action, [Appellant] asserted causes of action under RICO and the Lanham Act, as well as common law claims for conversion, civil conspiracy, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and punitive damages.
Upon motion by [Hollenshead], the federal court dismissed all but the trademark claim based on the statute of limitations. In doing so, the court noted that, even though [Appellant] was aware of [Hollenshead's] alleged appropriation and use of the Disputed Invention beginning in 2002, [Appellant] did not file the Federal Lawsuit until at least five years later. Since the statutes of limitations for RICO, tort, and contract claims are four, two and four years, respectively, the claims for breach of contract, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and civil RICO violations were time barred.
Only the cause of action asserting trademark infringement under the Lanham Act survived the Motion to Dismiss. That claim was subsequently dismissed upon Motion for Summary Judgment. [Appellant] filed a timely Motion for Reconsideration, which the federal court denied. [Appellant] never appealed any of the court's orders or the judgment entered against it in the Federal Action.
In February, 2010, while the Federal Action was pending, [Appellant] filed this action against [Hollenshead] and against defendant, Inc. ("Autotrader"), an automobile auctioneer. [Appellant] alleged that in 2008, Autotrader began using the Disputed Invention under a license from [Hollenshead]. In its Complaint, [Appellant] requested: a declaratory judgment that it is the exclusive owner of the Disputed Invention; an injunction to prohibit [Hollenshead] and Autotrader from further use or licensing of the Disputed Invention; an accounting of their revenues from its use; and damages.
[Hollenshead] filed Preliminary Objections, a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and a Motion for Summary Judgment based on res judicata/collateral estoppel, all of which were overruled or denied by the late Judge Sheppard. [Hollenshead] filed a Motion for Reconsideration from Judge Sheppard's denial of their Motion for Summary Judgment. Unfortunately, Judge Sheppard passed away before he was able to decide whether he should reconsider, so the Motion was reassigned to this court. This court initially denied the Motion for Reconsideration, but subsequently reconsidered and entered an Order requesting supplemental briefs be filed on, essentially, the following issue:
While the running of statute of limitations relating to personal actions normally merely bars the remedies, but does not discharge the rights, did the expiration of the statutory periods addressed in federal court also extinguish any right of ownership [Appellant] may have had in the "Invention" and transfer it to [Hollenshead]?
The parties submitted the requested briefs, and the court entered the August 13th Order from which this appeal is taken.

Trial Court Opinion, 12/31/12, at 1-4 (footnotes omitted).

In this timely appeal, Appellant presents the following issues for our review:

A. In a case of first impression, does the law of the case doctrine prevent a judge of coordinate jurisdiction from sua sponte reversing the denial of summary judgment by another (deceased) judge of the same court who previously denied said motion, when the former judge committed no clear error, found material issues of fact to exist, and when the subsequent ...

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