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[U] TCPF Limited Partnership v. Skatell

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 5, 2014



Appeal from the Order of May 15, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County Civil Division at Nos.: 4999 2011 5042 of 2008 8239 of 2006 Consolidated at 2006-8239




TCPF Limited Partnership ("TCPF") appeals from the May 15, 2013 order granting summary judgment in favor of James Skatell, Thomas Altmiller, Vera Altmiller, and the estate of Robert Altmiller. We affirm .

This Court previously has summarized the pertinent factual and procedural history of this case as follows:

[ TCPF] is the owner of commercial property located at 1185 East Pittsburgh Street, Greensburg, Pennsylvania. [ TCPF] agreed to lease a portion of the building located on that property to T & J Sub Shoppe, Inc. ("T & J") for the operation of a Quiznos sub shop. Skatell, as president of T & J, executed the agreement of lease dated July 18, 2003. The lease was for a period of seven years commencing on the opening of the business or October 1, 2003, whichever event occurred first.
Also on July 18, 2003, Thom as Altmiller ("Altmiller") and Skatell executed an individual guaranty. Pursuant to the guaranty, Altmiller and Skatell guaranteed the full and prompt payment of all rent and additional rent and any and all other sums and charges payable by T & J. The guaranty contained a warrant of attorney and confession of judgment provision enabling [ TCPF] to bring an action to confess judgment against Altmiller and Skatell for all or any sum s due. The individual guaranty contained language allowing for the successive exercises of the warrant of attorney until all obligations of Altmiller and Skatell under the lease had been discharged. Beginning in June of 2006, T & J defaulted on its obligation under the lease.
On September 19, 2006, filed a complaint in confession of judgment against Altmiller and Skatell [ hereinafter, "2006 Com plaint" ] for T & J's breach of its lease obligations in the amount of $65, 196.91. [ TCPF] invoked the right to accelerate the rent and other charges for the entire unexpired balance of the term of the lease. On the same date, judgments by confession in favor of [ TCPF] and against Altmiller and in favor of [ TCPF] and against Skatell were entered in the amount of $65, 196.91. Subsequent to the filing of the complaint and entries of judgment, [ TCPF] discovered that it had calculated the amount of judgment for the amount due under only a portion of the unexpired balance of the term of the lease, from June of 2006 through September of 2007, and not the entire lease term. On August 20, 2007, [ TCPF] requested leave of court to file an amended complaint in confession of judgment to increase the amount of judgment to $203, 420.45, which represents the entire unexpired balance of the term of the lease from June of 2006 through September of 2010. On October 25, 2007, the trial court denied [ TCPF's] request.
[ TCPF] then presented a second motion for leave to file an amended complaint in confession of judgment to invoke its right to accelerate the rent and other charges, payments, costs and expenses for only that part of the unexpired balance of the term of the lease from June of 2006 through September of 2007[, ] and reserving its right to confess judgment for amounts coming due under the lease subsequent to September of 2007. On November 21, 2007, the trial court denied the second motion.

TCPF Ltd. P'ship. v. Skatell, 976 A.2d 571, 573 (Pa. Super. 2009) (footnotes omitted). TCPF separately appealed each of the trial court's rulings denying TCPF's petitions to am end. This Court consolidated the appeals and affirmed. I d. at 574-77.

On May 1, 2008, Before this Court ruled on the above appeals, TCPF filed a new civil com plaint against Skatell at a separate docket (hereinafter, "2008 Complaint"), seeking additional damages for the entire unexpired lease term.[1] On March 21, 2013, Skatell filed a motion for summary judgment. Therein, he argued that, because TCPF previously had obtained a final judgment for the balance of the rents due, this subsequent civil action was barred by both the doctrine of res judicata and collateral estoppel.[2] On May 15, 2013, the trial court granted Skatell's motion for summary judgment, determining that collateral estoppel barred TCPF from pursuing further recovery by confessed judgment.

On June 13, 2013, TCPF filed a notice of appeal. The trial court did not direct TCPF to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). On July 1, 2013, the trial court issued a statement pursuant to Rule 1925(a) that incorporated its May 15, 2013, order and opinion.

TCPF presents the following issue for our consideration: "Did the trial court err in determining that collateral estoppel bars TCPF from pursuing unpaid rentals owed?" Brief for TCPF at 1 (capitalization modified).[3] Our standard of review of a trial court's order granting summary judgment is well-settled:

[ S] ummary judgment is properly granted where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Summary judgment may be granted only where the right is clear and free from legal doubt. The moving party has the burden of proving that there is no genuine issue of material fact. The record and any inferences therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and any doubt must be resolved against the moving party. The trial court will be overturned on the entry of summary judgment only if there has been an error of law or a clear abuse of discretion.

First Wisc. Trust Co. v. Strausser, 653 A.2d 688, 691 (Pa. Super. 1995) (internal citations, quotation m arks, and modifications omitted). An abuse of discretion occurs "if, in resolving the issue for decision, [ the trial court] misapplies the law or exercises its discretion in a manner lacking reason." MacNutt v. Temple Univ. Hosp., Inc., 932 A.2d 980, 991 (Pa. Super. 2007).

TCPF takes issue with the trial court's application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which is a species of the broader principle of res judicata. We have elaborated on these principles as follows:

"Res judicata literally means a matter adjudged or a thing judicially acted upon or decided. From long usage it has come to encompass generally the effect of one judgment upon a subsequent trial or proceeding. Two quite distinct aspects are included: first, the effect of a judgment in a subsequent action between the parties based upon the same cause of action; second, the effect on the parties in a trial on a [ d] ifferent cause of action." McCarthy v. Township of McCandless, 300 A.2d 815, 819 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1973) (footnote omitted). The first effect is known as merger and bar, 'technical' res judicata, or simply 'res judicata'; the second is known as collateral estoppel.

Martin v. Poole, 336 A.2d 363, 366 (Pa. Super. 1975) (citation modified). Technical res judicata precludes a lawsuit on a cause of action when a final judgment was entered on the merits of that cause of action in an earlier proceeding. Id. (citing Restatement Judgments § 61 (1942)).

Collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, "operates to prevent a question of law or issue of fact which has once been litigated and fully determined in a court of competent jurisdiction from being relitigated in a subsequent suit." Alberici v. Tinari, 542 A.2d 127, 131 (Pa. Super. 1988). Collateral estoppel bars litigation of an issue that previously has been decided when the following four elements are present:

(1) An issue decided in a prior action is identical to the one presented in a later action;
(2) The prior action resulted in a final judgment on the merits;
(3) The party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted was a party to the prior action, or is in privity with a party to the prior action; and
(4) The party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action.

Columbia Med. Grp., Inc. v. Herring & Roll, P.C., 829 A.2d 1184, 1190 (Pa. Super. 2003) (citing Rue v. K-Mart Corp., 713 A.2d 82, 84 (Pa. 1998)).

I n arguing that its present claim s are not estopped by the previous litigation between the parties, TCPF challenges only the first element of collateral estoppel. TCPF attempts to construe the issue in its first action narrowly as addressed solely to "the extent of the authority of the warrant to confess judgment." Brief for TCPF at 5. Thus, according to TCPF, the parties have yet to litigate the full balance of the unexpired lease term . Id. TCPF cites no authority addressing the degree of similarity between issues necessary to support the application of collateral estoppel, nor does TCPF endeavor to distinguish the assertions of fact underlying the two actions.

Our review of the record reveals that the issue of damages for the entire balance of Skatell's lease term was litigated in the previous action. I n its original complaint in confession of judgment, TCPF sought to recover "rent and other charges, payments, costs and expenses for the entire unexpired balance of the Term of this Lease."[4] 2006 Complaint at 3 ¶11 (emphasis added). Thus, we cannot agree with TCPF that the prior action related only to a subset of dam ages arising under the lease, or to a nebulous question going solely to the scope of TCPF's authority to confess judgment. Revealingly, the com plaint at issue sub judice, in materially identical term s, seeks recovery of " [ r] ent and other charges, payments, costs and expenses for the entire unexpired balance of Term of the Agreement of Lease." 2008 Complaint at 3 ¶8 (emphasis added).

The only stated difference between the claims raised in the two causes of action is the amount of damages asserted. I d. at 4. TCPF's 2008 Com plaint does not allege any facts distinct from those alleged in the 2006 Com plaint, nor does it include any additional parties. Both actions relate solely to the acceleration of rent for the balance of the lease term . I n effect, TCPF has done nothing more than correct the previous calculation of damages, and restyled its complaint as a breach of contract action. TCPF's obvious intent in this action, however styled or recast on appeal, was to revisit an already litigated claim . TCPF's effort to distinguish the nature of its present claim, unsupported by the pleadings and exhibits in the record, is insufficient to circumvent application of collateral estoppel.[5]

TCPF provides no argument or citation to authorities disputing any other element required to establish collateral estoppel. However, in the interest of comprehensiveness, we note that the three remaining elements of collateral estoppel are satisfied in this case. As to the second element, our Supreme Court has held that a judgment by confession constitutes a final judgment on the merits, which may operate to bar collateral challenges. See Magee v. J.G. Wentworth & Co., Inc., 761 A.2d 159, 161 (Pa. Super. 2000) (finding claims barred by res judicata that could have been, but were not, raised in prior confession of judgment proceedings). The third element likewise is satisfied, because TCPF not only participated in, but indeed initiated, the prior proceedings. Thus, TCPF also had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue of damages during the previous litigation, in satisfaction of the fourth element of collateral estoppel.

In this collateral proceeding, TCPF attempts to revisit a matter that has been finally concluded. To validate this approach would open the door to a litany of successive lawsuits based upon a litigant's later dissatisfaction with the resolution of a prior claim. For the foregoing reasons, we agree that TCPF is collaterally estopped from proceeding in the instant matter.

Order affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

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