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Board of Supervisors of Willistown Township v. Main Line Gardens, Inc.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 9, 2018

Board of Supervisors of Willistown Township
v.
Main Line Gardens, Inc. and Coffman Associates, LLC Appellants

          Argued: April 10, 2018

          BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge

          OPINION

          ROBERT SIMPSON, JUDGE.

         These six consolidated appeals return to this Court following our Supreme Court's remand in Board of Supervisors of Willistown Township v. Main Line Gardens, Inc., 155 A.3d 39 (Pa. 2017) (Main Line Gardens II). In Main Line Gardens II, the Supreme Court determined a single judge of this Court erred in dismissing the appeals filed by Main Line Gardens, Inc. and Coffman Associates, LLC (collectively, Main Line) following the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County's[1] (trial court) entry of judgment against Main Line in six zoning enforcement actions filed by the Willistown Township Board of Supervisors (Township). A single judge of this Court dismissed Main Line's appeals based on its failure to file briefs in support of its post-trial motions in the trial court. Our Supreme Court reversed and remanded to this Court for review of the merits of the issues raised in Main Line's underlying appeals.

         As to the merits, Main Line primarily argues the trial court erred in determining Main Line waived the issue of res judicata, which, it asserts, bars the Township's enforcement actions. Main Line also contends the trial court erred in awarding attorney fees to the Township. Upon review, we affirm.

         I. Background

         In April 2011, the Township issued Main Line a zoning enforcement notice, which indicated that Main Line's garden center use did not comply with the terms of a prior conditional use decision as well as the Willistown Township Zoning Ordinance of 1981 (zoning ordinance). Relevant here, the Township alleged continuing violations by Main Line related to the dumping, storing, transferring, or processing of tree waste in the form of wood chips, in violation of Section 139-146(B) of the zoning ordinance. Main Line appealed the enforcement notice to the Zoning Hearing Board of Willistown Township (ZHB), which, after hearings, determined Main Line was in violation of the zoning ordinance and prior conditional use approval. The trial court upheld the ZHB's decision, as modified, and this Court affirmed. Thereafter, the Supreme Court denied Main Line's petition for allowance of appeal.

         To enforce the ZHB's determination, in August 2013, the Township filed seven civil complaint enforcement actions against Main Line in magisterial district court for per diem violations of the zoning ordinance. Each complaint sought per diem violations for specific 12-day periods because, based on the jurisdictional limit of the magisterial district court ($12, 000 per action), the Township had to file seven separate actions seeking discrete 12-day periods of violations in each, separate action. A hearing ensued before a magisterial district judge.

         Ultimately, the magisterial district court issued separate notices of judgment against Main Line in the amount of $6, 143 on each of the seven complaints, for a total judgment of $43, 001. Main Line appealed the seven magisterial district court judgments to the trial court, and the Township filed complaints against Main Line in each of the seven actions. In each complaint, the Township sought the imposition of per diem fines for the period of May 23, 2012, to August 14, 2013.[2]

         In May 2014, after civil arbitrations in the seven actions, an arbitration panel entered an award in favor of the Township in one of the seven actions in the amount of $21, 274.67, and in favor of Main Line in the remaining six actions. The Township entered judgment on the arbitrators' award in the one case decided in its favor, and it filed notices of appeal in the other six cases, which then proceeded before the trial court de novo. See Pa. R.C.P. No. 1311(a).

         Prior to trial, Main Line filed motions for summary judgment in the six remaining actions. In supporting briefs filed in each case, Main Line argued that res judicata barred the Township from offering proof of damages because the arbitrators rendered a decision on damages (in the first case decided in favor of the Township) for the entire 84-day period alleged in that case, and that case was a final judgment because the Township did not appeal that decision.

         In response, the Township filed a motion for leave to amend its complaints in the six actions to set forth the distinct 12-day periods set forth in the complaints it filed in the magisterial district court. Main Line filed responsive briefs, arguing against amendment based on res judicata. The Township also filed cross-motions for summary judgment with supporting briefs in the six cases, offering its own res judicata argument, namely that the doctrine should bar Main Line from contesting the arbitrators' factual findings relating to its zoning ordinance violations in the case decided in favor of the Township as Main Line did not appeal that decision. Main Line filed responses and supporting briefs to the Township's cross-motions for summary judgment, offering further argument on the application of res judicata under the existing procedural posture of the six cases.

         Thereafter, the trial court denied all of the motions and cross-motions for summary judgment. At the outset of a non-jury trial, over Main Line's objections based on res judicata, the trial court granted the Township's motion to amend its six complaints.[3] The trial court acknowledged Main Line's res judicata and collateral estoppel objections, and the trial court provided the parties an opportunity to argue those issues.

         After the non-jury trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the Township in all six actions in the amount of $15, 200 in each case (for a total of $91, 200). In a footnote to the first of its six orders, the trial court indicated that Main Line did not properly raise res judicata as a defense in the six actions because it did not raise the defense in its pleadings. Specifically, the trial court stated:

Not having been pled, [Main Line's] reliance on the defense of res judicata is unavailing. Had that defense been pled, [the Township] could have taken the appropriate steps to separate each of the causes of action. Further, the actual violations have been proven with sufficient specificity, the burden being on the [Township] to demonstrate the violations but only by a preponderance of the evidence and we impose a fine of $100 per day. In addition, [the Township] is entitled to recover its reasonable and appropriate attorney's fees and costs, Borough of Bradford Woods v. Platts, 799 A.2d 984 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002), but [the Township] also has the burden of proof as to those damages. In this and the related cases, it was difficult to ascertain the appropriate amount to be awarded but we are satisfied that the amounts awarded in this and the related cases (we divided the awardable costs and fees equally among the cases) are sufficiently supported by the evidence.

Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 535a.

         Main Line filed timely post-trial motions in each of the six cases. However, it did not file briefs in support of its post-trial motions. The trial court subsequently entered six separate orders denying Main Line's post-trial motions, and it entered six separate judgments against Main Line.

         Main Line filed six notices of appeal from the six separate judgments entered in the trial court.[4] The trial court directed Main Line to file concise statements of the errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b), which it did.

         The trial court subsequently issued an opinion pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a). In its opinion, the trial court explained that Main Line first asserted that the trial court erred in finding Main Line did not avail itself of the defense of res judicata. The trial court stated Main Line was correct in that assertion, but the trial court's error in deeming the defense of res judiciata waived was harmless because, on the merits, the defense did not apply here.

         To that end, the trial court stated, the doctrine of res judicata precludes an action where the former and latter suits possess the following common elements: (1) identity of issues; (2) identity of causes of action; (3) identity of persons and parties to the action; and, (4) identity of the capacity of the parties suing or being sued. In re Iulo, 766 A.2d 335 (Pa. 2001); see also Daley v. A.W. Chesterton, Inc., 37 A.3d 1175 (Pa. 2012). Here, the trial court stated, each of the seven suits the Township filed related to different time periods; therefore, the requisite identities were not present.

         Next, the trial court stated, Main Line's second argument was that the trial court erred in permitting amendment of the six complaints that proceeded to trial. The trial court explained Main Line's argument on this point depended on its first argument, that the claims in the six complaints were barred by res judicata. However, the trial court stated, as noted above, each of the seven complaints covered a distinct time period; therefore, res judicata did not apply.

         Finally, the trial court stated, Main Line argued that the trial court erred in awarding attorney fees where the evidence the Township presented commingled allowable fees with those that were not recoverable. The trial court explained that Main Line was correct that the evidence did not clearly differentiate the fees incurred for each of the applicable 12-day periods. However, the trial court stated, based on the evidence presented, it was able to make a determination with reasonable accuracy and without impermissible speculation.[5]

         For these reasons, the trial court opined that this Court should affirm the trial court's order denying Main Line's post-trial motions.[6]

         Before this Court, the Township filed an application to dismiss Main Line's appeals based on its failure to file briefs in support of its post-trial motions in the trial court. Relying on a Superior Court decision, [7] a single judge of this Court agreed that Main Line's failure to file briefs in support of its post-trial motions resulted in the waiver of all of Main Line's issues on appeal. Bd. of Supervisors of Willistown Twp. v. Main Line Gardens, Inc. (Pa. Cmwlth., Nos. 953-958, 1434, 1456, 1460, 1549, 1573, 1574 C.D. 2015, filed Nov. 17, 2015) (single judge op.) (Main Line Gardens I), rev'd by Main Line Gardens II. Therefore, a single judge of this Court dismissed Main Line's appeals. Id. After this Court denied Main Line's application for reargument, Main Line filed a petition for allowance of appeal, which the Supreme Court granted.[8]

         Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that this Court erred in dismissing Main Line's appeals where: (1) Pa. R.C.P. No. 227.1(b)(2) does not require supporting briefs or the presentation of argument when post-trial motions are filed; rather, the trial court has discretion to request that the parties file briefs if it requires further advocacy on the issues; (2) as a result, the trial court had discretion to overlook Main Line's failure to file a brief in support of its post-trial motions; and, (3) the trial court ruled on the merits of Main Line's post-trial motions based on the fact that the parties previously briefed the issues raised in the post-trial motions, and the trial court heard argument on those issues. Main Line Gardens II. As such, the Supreme Court remanded to this Court for a review of the merits of Main Line's issues on appeal. Id.

         On remand, this Court directed the parties to file briefs on the merits of Main Line's appeals, which they did. Main Line's consolidated appeals are now before us for disposition.[9]

          II. Issues

         On appeal, [10] Main Line raises three issues. First, it argues the trial court erred in finding it waived the issue of res judicata where: (a) the issue first arose after the pleadings were closed; (b) Main Line raised the issue in multiple pre-trial filings; and, (c) the trial court stated during trial, "I think that's sufficient to raise the question of collateral estoppel as well as technical res judicata, and I'll hear your arguments this afternoon." R.R. at 489a. Main Line also asserts the trial court erred in its Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a) Opinion by modifying the final, unappealed order issued by the arbitration panel in an identical case, between the same parties, which was reduced to judgment and the judgment paid. Additionally, Main Line contends the trial court erred in awarding attorney fees to the Township where the only evidence was that the fees claimed were not allocated between those matters in which Main Line prevailed before the ZHB and the trial court, and those matters that were the subject of the enforcement citation, leading to this appeal.

         III. Discussion

         A. Res Judicata

         1. Contentions

         Main Line first argues the trial court erred in determining Main Line waived the defense of res judicata because the defense did not arise until: (1) after the pleadings were closed; (2) the arbitration was complete; and, (3) the arbitrators' award in one of the identical cases was not timely appealed and became final.

         Main Line contends the trial court deemed the issue of res judicata waived based on the fact that Main Line did not plead res judicata as new matter despite the fact that, at the outset of trial, the trial court permitted the Township to amend its six remaining complaints in an effort to avoid the impact of res judicata, as raised by Main Line in numerous other filings. Further, Main Line asserts, the trial court stated that if the Township was faced with a pleading of res judicata, as opposed to a series of motions, it could have taken appropriate steps to separate the causes of action. Main Line argues the trial court's decision was an abuse of discretion and an error of law.

         To that end, Main Line maintains, the issue of res judicata was not waived because: (1) it first arose after pleadings were closed; (2) it was before the trial court on a motion and in numerous filings; (3) the trial judge stated on the record, at trial, that the issue was before him; (4) the Township did attempt to take steps to separate its causes of action; and, (5) there was no step that could have altered the fact that the Township did not appeal the arbitrators' decision in the seventh case.

         In that seventh trial court case, Main Line argues, there was an award of damages for the sale by Main Line of mulch to a customer who did not use it for landscaping, but rather transported it to another county where it was made into higher quality mulch. Main Line contends the dates in the original 7 cases before the magisterial district judge were 84 successive days beginning on May 23, 2012. It asserts that no imaginative pleading could change the dates for the remaining 6 cases as the final judgement in the seventh case dealt with all 84 of those days.

         Main Line further argues the issue of res judicata was discussed extensively at trial, with the trial court actively participating. Main Line acknowledges that Pa. R.C.P. No. 1030 requires res judicata to be raised in new matter, in order to give the Township an opportunity to reply. However, it asserts, at the time it filed its answers, res judicata was not a proper affirmative defense because the arbitrations had not yet produced the single unappealed decision in favor of the Township, which later became final. Main Line contends the trial court permitted the Township to amend its complaints in court at the outset of trial; however, the Township never filed its amended complaints and they were never docketed. Thus, Main Line maintains the time for filing a responsive pleading, with new matter, never began to run. Nevertheless, Main Line asserts, the trial court permitted the case to be tried on the basis of the unfiled amended complaints, and by its words on the record, causing Main Line to believe it did not need to delay trial to file answers and new matter to the six proposed amended complaints.

         Main Line further argues the trial court's finding that the issue of res judicata was waived is fundamentally unfair. If the trial court or the Township's counsel stated, at or before trial, that the defense was waived, Main Line contends, it would have asked to recess the trial in order to timely file new matter. Main Line asserts the trial court affirmatively caused the parties to believe the issue was before the trial court.

         Main Line also argues the Township waived its right to assert that Main Line waived this issue where the Township: (1) was granted leave to amend its complaints to attempt to address the issue of res judicata raised by Main Line in its summary judgment motions; (2) failed to raise ...


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