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P.J.A. v. H.C.N.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 13, 2017

P.J.A., Appellant
v.
H.C.N., Appellee

         Appeal from the Order Entered September 18, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County Civil Division at No(s): 2014-C-3694

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., OTT, J., and SOLANO, J.

          OPINION

          PER CURIAM:

         P.J.A. appeals from the order entered September 18, 2015, in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, sustaining the preliminary objections of H.C.N. and dismissing P.J.A.'s amended complaint with prejudice. P.J.A.'s amended complaint set forth an abuse of process action and a "Dragonetti" action.[1] P.J.A. claims the trial court erred in (1) holding that P.J.A.'s abuse of process claim was barred by the statute of limitations, (2) deciding, at the preliminary objection stage, the factual question of whether P.J.A.'s abuse of process claim adequately pleaded H.C.N.'s improper purpose, and (3) concluding that P.J.A.'s Dragonetti claim failed to satisfy the element of a termination in his favor in the underlying proceedings. See P.J.A.'s Brief at 4. Based upon the following, we affirm.

         The trial court has summarized the background of this case, as follows:

The parties married in February of 2006. Their marriage lasted until March of 2007, at which time they separated and initiated divorce proceedings. There is one child born from their marriage, [Child], born in August of 2006.
From March of 2007 to the present, the parties have continually engaged in extraordinarily contentious litigation in their custody action, Lehigh County Case No. 2007-FC-0427. Throughout the preceding eight years, the parties demonstrated a consistent inability to meaningfully co-parent their mutual child, leading to countless custody petitions, petitions for special relief, and allegations of contempt between the parties. Both parties continuously call on the courts to make determinations about all major aspects of [Child's] life, including, inter alia, religious affiliation and training, daycare, selection of an appropriate school, sports, and whether and under what circumstances the child can ride the school bus. Because of the ongoing series of petitions and court appearances, both parties have spent innumerable hours in court engaging in protracted hearings. They have also incurred significant legal costs through counsel fees, filing fees, and their presence in court as it impacts upon their respective careers.
In the instant litigation, [P.J.A.] initiated this matter by filing a pro se Writ of Summons on November 17, 2014. He filed a pro se complaint against [H.C.N.] on December 31, 2014 alleging Abuse of Process and Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings in the parties' custody action. [H.C.N.] filed preliminary objections to [P.J.A.'s] complaint. The Court scheduled oral argument on [H.C.N.'s] preliminary objections. On April 14, 2015, Attorney Todd Mosser entered his appearance and appeared on [P.J.A.'s] behalf on the same day for oral argument. Attorney Mosser requested time to file an Amended Complaint. The Court struck the original complaint without prejudice and granted Attorney Moser time to file an Amended Complaint.
On May 4, 2015, [P.J.A.] filed his Amended Complaint. [H.C.N.] filed the instant Preliminary Objections on May 26, 2015, and [P.J.A.] filed a response on June 16, 2015. The Court heard oral argument on September 8, 2015.
On September 18, 2015, the Court entered an order with an opinion sustaining the preliminary objections and dismissing the case with prejudice.
[P.J.A.] filed a Notice of Appeal on October 16, 2015. The Court directed him to file a Concise Statement of Matters Complained of on Appeal, which he filed on November 6, 2015.

Trial Court Opinion, 11/30/2015, at 1-4 (footnote omitted).

         At the outset, we state our standard of review:

Our review of a challenge to a trial court's decision to grant preliminary objections is guided by the following standard:
[o]ur standard of review of an order of the trial court overruling or granting preliminary objections is to determine whether the trial court committed an error of law. When considering the appropriateness of a ruling on preliminary objections, the appellate court must apply the same standard as the trial court. Preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. When considering preliminary objections, all material facts set forth in the challenged pleadings are admitted as true, as well as all inferences reasonably deducible therefrom. Preliminary objections which seek the dismissal of a cause of action should be sustained only in cases in which it is clear and free from doubt that the pleader will be unable to prove facts legally sufficient to establish the right to relief. If any doubt exists as to whether a demurrer should be sustained, it should be resolved in favor of overruling the preliminary objections.

Feingold v. Hendrzak, 15 A.3d 937, 941 (Pa. Super. 2011) (citation omitted).

         ABUSE OF PROCESS

         P.J.A. first contends the trial court erred in determining his abuse of process claim was barred by the statute of limitations. There is no dispute that an abuse of process claim is subject to a two-year statute of limitations. 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524(1). Here, what is in contention is the date upon which that two-year time period began to run.

         The limitations period for any claim begins to run "from the time the cause of action accrued." 42 Pa.C.S. § 5502(a). As the Supreme Court explained in Fine v. Checcio, 870 A.2d 850 (Pa. 2005):

In Pennsylvania, a cause of action accrues when the plaintiff could have first maintained the action to a successful conclusion. Thus, we have stated that the statute of limitations begins to run as soon as the right to institute and maintain a suit arises. ... Once a cause of action has accrued and the prescribed statutory period has run, an injured party is barred from bringing his cause of action.

Id. at 857 (internal citations omitted). Accord Kapil v. Ass'n of Pennsylvania State Coll. & Univ. Faculties, 470 A.2d 482, 485 (Pa. 1983) ("The true test in determining when a cause of action arises or accrues is to establish the time when the plaintiff could have first maintained the action to a successful conclusion.").

         The common law cause of action for abuse of process "is defined as the use of legal process against another 'primarily to accomplish a purpose for which it is not designed.'" Rosen v. American Bank of Rolla, 627 A.2d 190, 192 (Pa. Super. 1993) (citation omitted).

To establish a claim for abuse of process it must be shown that the defendant (1) used a legal process against the plaintiff, (2) primarily to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed; and (3) harm has been caused to the plaintiff.
Abuse of process is, in essence, the use of legal process as a tactical weapon to coerce a desired result that is not the legitimate object of the process. Thus, the gravamen of this tort is the perversion of legal process to benefit someone in achieving a purpose which is not an authorized goal of the procedure in question.

Werner v. Plater-Zyberk, 799 A.2d 776, 785 (Pa. Super. 2002) (citations omitted). See Weiss v. Equibank, 460 A.2d 271, 276 (Pa. Super. 1983 ("If the plaintiff sues the defendant on a valid cause of action but brings the suit, for example, not to collect his just debt but for a collateral purpose such as blackmail the action is a malicious abuse of process."). Therefore, it follows that, in an abuse of process case, the statute of limitations is triggered when the defendant uses "legal process" against the plaintiff for an improper purpose, which, in turn, causes harm to the plaintiff.

         Here, the trial court determined P.J.A.'s cause of action for abuse of process arose on July 3, 2012, and, because P.J.A. did not file a writ of summons until November 17, 2014, his claim was time-barred by the two year statute of limitations. The trial court explained its reasoning, as follows:

In [P.J.A.'s] Amended Complaint, [P.J.A.] averred that on June 28, 2012, he filed a petition in the parties' custody case requesting leave of Court to enroll the parties' child in a summer camp program. [H.C.N.] filed an Answer with New Matter on July 3, 2012. In her New Matter, [H.C.N.] requested sole legal custody of the parties' child. [P.J.A.] alleged [H.C.N.] made several "knowingly false allegations" in support of her request for sole legal custody. The Amended Complaint in this case asserted [H.C.N.] falsely alleged that [P.J.A.] baptized the parties' child without [H.C.N.'s] knowledge or consent, and further alleged that [P.J.A.] covertly enrolled the parties' child in kindergarten. [P.J.A.] averred that [H.C.N.'s] "true purpose in initiating that legal process [the New Matter] was to attempt to destroy [P.J.A.'s] good name and reputation; to disrupt [P.J.A.'s] work obligations; and to compel [P.J.A.] to incur significant financial expense and emotional distress." (Amended Complaint, at ¶ 36.)
****
The statute of limitations applicable to a claim for Abuse of Process is two years. 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5524(1). The date that a claim for Abuse of Process accrues is different from the date when a claim for Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings accrues. Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings claims accrue on the date of termination of the allegedly wrongful suit because a necessary element of the claim is that the prior suit terminated in the current Appellant's favor. By contrast, Abuse of Process claims accrue on the date the alleged abuse occurred.
In this case, [P.J.A.] identified [H.C.N.'s] New Matter she filed in conjunction with her Answer on July 3, 2012, as the allegedly abusive filing. Because that filing is the alleged abuse about which [P.J.A.] now complains, the cause of action accrued on July 3, 2012. Therefore, the statute of limitations ran until July 3, 2014. [P.J.A.] did not initiate his claim until November 17, 2014, when he filed a Writ of Summons. At that point, his claim for Abuse of Process was time-barred.
On appeal, [P.J.A.] argues that the damages he is seeking in the form of legal fees were not realized prior to the rejection of [H.C.N.'s] allegedly false claims. He also notes that "it is error to require an abuse of process plaintiff to immediately file an abuse of process lawsuit while the validity of the underlying process has yet to be determined." [P.J.A.] does not cite any authority for ...

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