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Linde v. Linde

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 1, 2019

BARBARA LINDE, IN HER OWN RIGHT AND BARBARA LINDE ON BEHALF OF LINDE CORPORATION
v.
SCOTT LINDE, ROBERT L. HESSLING, ROBERT M. MCGRAW, PAUL FEDOR, CHRISTOPHER LANGEL, ALFRED OSTROSKI, MICHAEL BOCHNOVICH, LINDE CORPORATION AND SCOTT LINDE FAMILY'S CORPORATION TRUST Appellants

          Appeal from the Order Entered July 20, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County Civil Division at No(s): 2013 CV 11028

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., OLSON, J., and STABILE, J.

          OPINION

          OLSON, J.

         Appellants, Scott Linde, Robert L. Hessling, Robert M. McGraw, Paul Fedor, Christopher Langel, Alfred Ostroski, Michael Bochnovich, Linde Corporation, and Scott Linde Family's Corporation Trust, appeal from the trial court's order entered on July 20, 2018.[1] We vacate and remand.

          On September 18, 2013, Barbara Linde (hereinafter "Barbara"), individually and on behalf of Linde Corporation (hereinafter "LindeCo"), filed a complaint against Appellants. The case proceeded to a bench trial, after which the trial court found in Barbara's favor on many of her claims and ruled that Barbara was entitled to an equitable remedy in which Appellants were to purchase her minority interest in LindeCo at fair value. Trial Court Order, 11/13/15, at 1-2. The trial court then convened a second proceeding aimed at determining the fair value of Barbara's shares. On December 28, 2017, the trial court entered its decision in the matter, ruling that Barbara's shares had a fair value of $4, 433, 000.00 and that Barbara was entitled to $959, 000.00 in interest, for a total award of $5, 392, 000.00. Trial Court Order, 12/28/17, at 1.

         On January 8, 2018, Appellants filed a timely post-trial motion. See Appellants' Motion for Post Trial Relief, 1/8/18, at 1-11. Eleven days later, and while Appellants' post-trial motion remained pending before the trial court, Barbara prematurely filed a praecipe to enter judgment with the Luzerne County clerk of courts. Barbara's Praecipe to Enter Judgment, 1/19/18, at 1; see also Pa.R.C.P. 227.4(1)(b). On January 19, 2018, the clerk of courts erroneously entered judgment against Appellants; that day, Barbara filed a praecipe for writ of execution against Appellants and various third-party entities as garnishees. See Entry of Judgment, 1/19/18, at 1; Praecipe for Writ of Execution, 1/19/18, at 1.

          The January 19, 2018 entry of judgment was beyond the clerk of court's authority and, thus, void. In relevant part, Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 227.4(1) declares:

. . . the prothonotary shall, upon praecipe of a party:

(1) enter judgment upon . . . the decision of a judge following a trial without jury, if

(a) no timely post-trial motion is filed; or

(b) one or more timely post-trial motions are filed and the court does not enter an order disposing of all motions within one hundred twenty days after the filing of the first motion. . . .

Pa.R.C.P. 227.4(1).

         Here, Appellants' timely post-trial motion was still outstanding and the 120-day time-period specified in Rule 227.4(1)(b) had not expired when the clerk of courts purported to enter judgment on January 19, 2018. Therefore, the clerk of courts had no authority to enter judgment on January 19, 2018 and the judgment entered that day was void, a nullity, and lacking in legal effect. Gotwalt v. Dellinger, 577 A.2d 623, 624-625 (Pa. Super. 1990) ("[d]ue to the prothonotary's purely ministerial status, the authority for [its] actions derive from either statute or rule of court. . . . [W]here it is established that the prothonotary has entered judgment against a party beyond [its] authority, such action is considered void and the judgment entered by [it] is a nullity and lacks legal effect"); see also Comm. ex rel. Penland v. Ashe, 19 A.2d 464, 466 (Pa. 1941) (a void judgment is "no judgment at all"); Romberger v. Romberger, 139 A. 159, 160 (Pa. 1927) ("it is the duty of the court of its own motion to strike off [a void judgment] whenever its attention is called to it").[2]

         Notwithstanding the void judgment, Barbara immediately began to engage in discovery in aid of execution. But see Pa.R.C.P. 3117(a) (providing that a plaintiff may engage in discovery in aid of execution at "any time after judgment") (emphasis added). Specifically, in January and February 2018, Barbara served upon Appellants "Interrogatories in Aid of Execution" and "Post-Judgment Requests for Production of Documents." Appellants did not respond to the interrogatories or document requests and, on March 15, 2018, Barbara filed a "Motion to Compel Responses to Discovery Requests, Impose Sanctions, and for Supplementary Relief in Aid of Execution" (hereinafter "Barbara's Motion to Compel"). As the name of this motion suggests, Barbara requested that the trial court enter an order: "(1) compelling [Appellants] to respond to [Barbara's] Interrogatories in Aid of Execution and Requests for Production, (2) imposing sanctions against [Appellants], and (3) granting supplementary relief in aid of execution." Barbara's Motion to Compel, 3/15/18, at 1 (some capitalization omitted).

         On May 18, 2018, the trial court entered an order granting in part and denying in part Barbara's Motion to Compel. The order declares:

1. [Appellants] shall provide [Barbara's] counsel with full and complete responses to [Barbara's] Interrogatories and Requests for Production of [D]ocuments within [30] days of the date of this order.
2. All other requests for relief are denied.

         Trial Court Order, 5/18/18, at 1 (some capitalization omitted).

         On April 3, 2018, the trial court denied Appellants' post-trial motion. Trial Court Order, 4/3/18, at 1. Appellants filed a notice of appeal on April 30, 2018 and a valid judgment was subsequently entered on May 21, 2018.

         Following the May 21, 2018 entry of judgment, Appellants filed with the trial court a "Motion for Clarification." Appellants' Motion for Clarification, 6/8/18, at 1-7. Within this motion, Appellants requested clarification on two issues. First, Appellants noted that Barbara requested all of her discovery in aid of execution prior to the entry of a valid judgment. Id. at 2-3. Appellants claimed that, since there was no valid judgment during the time Barbara sought her discovery in aid of execution, Appellants were not required to respond to Barbara's discovery requests. Id. at 3. However, Appellants called attention to the May 18, 2018 trial court order, which was also entered prior to a valid judgment, and which demanded that Appellants respond to the discovery requests. Appellants requested clarification of the May 18, 2018 order because "the record does not reflect that a valid and legally recognizable judgment was entered prior to the May 18 order [and it] is unclear from the May 18 order whether [Appellants] must produce the answers to the discovery in aid of execution." Id. at 4 (some capitalization omitted).

         Second, Appellants requested clarification because, on May 29, 2018, the trial court approved a supersedeas bond in the maximum amount of $6, 470, 400.00 (or, 120% of the monetary judgment against Appellants), "conditioned for the satisfaction of the judgment in full with interest and costs for the delay, if [the judgment] is affirmed or if for any reason the appeal is dismissed, or for the satisfaction of any modification of the order." Id. at 4-5 (some capitalization omitted), quoting, Supersedeas Bond, 5/29/18, at 2. Under the terms of the supersedeas bond, the trial court "order[ed] a stay of execution of, or any proceedings to enforce, the judgment" rendered against Appellants. Supersedeas Bond, 5/29/18, at 2. Given these circumstances, Appellants requested clarification as to "whether it was the intent of the [trial] court [to state in the May 18, 2018 order] . . . that [Appellants] must produce the answers to the discovery in aid of execution." Appellants' Motion for Clarification, 6/8/18, at 5 (some capitalization omitted).

         Barbara filed an "Emergency Motion for Sanctions" against Appellants on June 19, 2018. See Barbara's Emergency Motion for Sanctions, 6/19/18, at 1-3. Within this motion, Barbara claimed that Appellants "intentionally failed to comply with" the trial court's May 18, 2018 order, which directed that Appellants "provide [Barbara's] counsel with full and complete responses to [Barbara's] Interrogatories and Requests for Production of [D]ocuments within [30] days." Id. at 2. Barbara requested that the trial court sanction Appellants $1, 000.00 per day "for each day any [Appellant] fails to produce responses to [her] discovery requests" and grant her "such other relief as the [trial] court deems just and appropriate." Id. at 3 (some capitalization omitted).

         On July 20, 2018, the trial court entered an order declaring, in relevant part:

1. [Appellants'] Motion for Clarification is hereby denied.
2. [Appellants] shall provide [Barbara's] counsel with full and complete responses to [Barbara's] Interrogatories and Requests for Production of [D]ocuments ...

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