Dragonetti Act Claims Against Attorneys Withstand Constitutional Challenge…For Now

Maraleen D. Shields      Jun. 6, 2017

A 5-2 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision (Villani v. Seibert) overturned a ruling from Chester County Court of Common Pleas Judge Edward Griffith granting preliminary objections to a Dragonetti Act complaint on the basis that the claim violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. Judge Saylor wrote for the majority with Justices Baer, Todd, Dougherty, Mundy joining. The underlying claim stemmed from a property dispute between Frederic John Seibert, Jr., and his mother, Mary Seibert, on one hand, and Jean Louis Villani on the other. Attorney Thomas D. Schneider filed a quiet title and ejectment proceedings against the Seiberts on behalf of Villani. After that case ended, the Seiberts sued Villani and Schneider for wrongful use of civil proceedings (“Dragonetti Act”).

Schneider argued that the Pennsylvania Constitution conferred exclusive authority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to oversee the conduct of attorneys in the Commonwealth. The Dragonetti Act, which was passed by the general assembly, encroached upon that exclusive authority, and was therefore unconstitutional. In response, Villani argued that the Dragonetti Act is merely a codification of a common-law cause of action for malicious prosecution. The Chester County trial court agreed with Schneider.

The Court disagreed, holding that the Dragonetti Act was merely a means to compensate victims of frivolous litigation. The Court noted that the Dragonetti Act was not specifically targeted to attorneys and declined to hold that attorneys are immune from Dragonetti Act claims. Importantly, the Court left open the possibility that a different set of facts could lead to a different result, such as a case challenging a claim for punitive damages against an attorney or where the attorney argues that s/he was trying to reverse controlling precedent might be decided differently. “There is no directed challenge to the punitive damages aspect here, however, and no assertion that Appellee had been vying, in good faith, for a reversal of precedent when the underlying land-ownership litigation was commenced and pursued.”

The attorneys at Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba have experience representing clients on litigation matters, including Dragonetti and abuse of process claims. For more information, please contact Maraleen D. Shields, or any other attorney in our Litigation Practice.

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