In a recent decision, Board of Supervisors of Willistown Township v. Main Line Gardens, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania unanimously held that a party does not waive all issues on appeal when it fails to file a post-trial brief in support of its timely filed post-trial motion.
Under Rule 227.1(b) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, in order to obtain post-trial relief such as a new trial or judgment notwithstanding a jury verdict, a party must file a post-trial motion within ten days of the jury verdict or the court's decision in a non-jury case. If a party fails to do so or fails to include a particular issue in its post-trial motion, it cannot seek relief on that issue on appeal.
In Willistown Township, after losing at trial, the defendant filed several timely post-trial motions raising previously briefed issues, but failed to file any post-trial briefs. The trial court denied the post-trial motions on the merits without addressing the plaintiff's argument that the defendant's failure to file post-trial briefs constituted a waiver of all the issues it raised. On appeal, however, the Commonwealth Court held that the defendant had waived the issues raised in the post-trial motions by failing to file post-trial briefs. As a result, the court dismissed the appeal without addressing the merits.
The Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning that Rule 227.1(b) "contains no requirement that parties file briefs or present argument with respect to the issues specified in the [post-trial] motion in order to preserve them for appeal [emphasis in original]." Because the failure to file a brief in support of a post-trial motion does not violate Rule 227.1(b), the Supreme Court clarified that "neither the trial court nor the appellate courts may find waiver pursuant to the rule for failing to do so."
The Court cautioned, however, that trial courts still retain discretion to request the submission of post-trial briefs. And if a party fails to comply with such a request, the trial court can exercise its discretion to proceed in one of two ways: it may either find waiver or adjudicate the post-trial motions on the merits. Where, as in Willistown Township, it chooses the latter option and rules on the merits of the post-trial motion, the appellate courts cannot override that exercise of discretion by dismissing the subsequent appeal on waiver grounds. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the Commonwealth Court for review of the merits of the issues defendant raised on appeal.
This is an important ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, rejecting precedent from both of Pennsylvania's intermediate appellate courts that the failure to file a post-trial brief in support of a post-trial motion always constitutes grounds for waiver of all issues on appeal. Nonetheless, practitioners would be wise to file post-trial briefs in support of post-trial motions, not only to avoid a trial court's determination that a request for post-trial relief has been waived, but to provide the trial court with a more detailed explanation of the basis for post-trial relief.
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