Villani v. Seibert: Dragonetti Statute Does Not Violate Separation of Powers; But We’re Leaving the Door Open
Civil lawyers know—and may even fear—the threat of a Dragonetti action. The draconian name accurately depicts one of the few times in law that a lawyer can subsequently be called into court for his actions as an advocate. The Act is named for Joseph Dragonetti, a then-retired reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, who unsuccessfully brought suit after he was frivolously named in a lawsuit against a bank which he had done some marketing for. Dragonetti was unable to recover because of the common law rule—dating back to the 13th century—that required a show of imprisonment or seizure before an abuse of process claim could prevail. Dragonetti persuaded the legislature to pass 42 Pa.C.S. § 8352(1), the Act now commonly called by his name, in 1980, and his name has been bandied about in acrimonious disputes between litigious attorneys ever since.
Villani v. Seibert arose out of a case in Chester County (home of America’s most valuable mushrooms) in which a Dragonetti action was pleaded. Seibert persuaded the trial court to grant preliminary objections on the basis that the Dragonetti statute impermissibly crosses into the exclusive purview of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania under Article 5, Section 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which grants the Court the exclusive right to regulate the conduct of attorneys and to lay down rules governing the profession.
In a 6-1 decision, (though with only five votes for the majority opinion), the Court ruled that the Dragonetti Act did not violate its prerogatives to regulate the practice of law in the Commonwealth.
Saylor for the Majority: Dragonetti Statute is Primarily Substantive, but Where Punitive to Attorneys, It’s a Problem
Describing the statute as having “a strong substantive, remedial thrust,” Chief Justice Saylor relied on the Court’s voluminous caselaw (which is well summarized in the prior case of Com v. Olivo, 127 A.3d 769 (2015)) establishing that Article V, § 10’s provisions are generally meant to give the Court exclusive power to create procedural rules, while the legislature retains its more traditional power to create substantive rights and remedies for the Commonwealth.
The Court relied on federal caselaw which characterizes tort statutes such as this one as “perform[ing] an important remedial role” to emphasize that the legislature’s actions in passing the Dragonetti statute were substantive, not procedural. Given this fact, the statute falls within the legislature’s prerogative, rather than the Court’s.
“There is no directed challenge to the punitive damages aspect here,” Saylor noted, taking care to leave wide the door to the argument that an attorney is not subject to punitive sanctions under the Dragonetti Act. Such punishment might run afoul of the Court’s prerogative to discipline attorneys, and leaving attorneys open to discipline in civil actions brought by private parties throughout the Commonwealth may be argued to trample the Court’s exclusive powers. But this question is left for another day, and a narrower case. For now, the Court was content to rule that there is no “generalized attorney immunity from the substantive principles of tort law embodied in the Dragonetti Act.
Conclusion: Separation of Powers
This case represents a creative argument and a further refinement on the Court’s separation of powers jurisprudence. Several times, now, the Court has resisted the urge to become overly-aggressive in defense of its prerogatives, and is working to strike a balance between the substantive rights of the legislature and the more restrained procedural rule-making power of the Court. As the Court notes in this opinion, the legislature is better situated for making broad policy, and leaving questions such as the civil remedies available to aggrieved defendants to the legislature.
One final note: somewhat unusually, the Attorney General declined to take up the defense of the statute as called for under Pa.R.C.P. No. 235. The Court notes this oddity with some surprise in footnote 2. It is unclear why the AG’s office declined to intervene here.