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Preserving issues for appeal are as important in tax cases as any other litigation. In this article, Cozen O'Connor's Joseph C. Bright and Robert M. Careless discuss a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case where an appellate issue was lost by the failure to file a post-trial motion.
By Joseph C. Bright and Robert M. Careless
Joseph C. Bright is a member with Cozen O'Connor. Robert M. Careless is an associate with Cozen O'Connor.
A panel of the Commonwealth Court dismissed an appeal by the Lower Merion School District for failure to file post-trial motions, and thus failure to properly preserve its issues on appeal. Wolk v. School District of Lower Merion, No. 1465 C.D. 2016 (Pa. Commw. April 20, 2017). The school district filed an application for an exemption with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to increase its property taxes for the 2016-2017 fiscal year beyond the statutorily permitted index. A group of taxpayers filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages for alleged financial misrepresentations by the school district to the department in its exemption application. The school District filed preliminary objections to the taxpayers' complaint.
While the preliminary objections were pending, the taxpayers filed a petition with the lower court seeking to enjoin the school district from implementing the tax increase for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. A hearing was held on the petition and the parties submitted findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court issued an opinion with findings of fact and conclusions of law and ordered the school district to revoke the portion of the tax increase authorized by the Department of Education. In addition, the trial court ordered the school district to adopt a resolution to revoke the tax increase.
The school district appealed to the Commonwealth Court. The issue on appeal was whether the trial court had issued a preliminary or permanent injunction. The school district contended that the trial court issued a preliminary injunction, which is immediately appealable as an interlocutory appeal. The court disagreed. The court determined that the trial court did not maintain the status quo, but rather enjoined the school district from enforcing or collecting the tax increase for the fiscal year and further ordered the school district to adopt a resolution. That constituted a permanent injunction. Since the school district failed to file post-trial motions, the school district's issues raised on appeal were waived and the court dismissed the appeal.
The case serves as an important reminder to practitioners and highlights the potential pitfalls of appellate practice in Pennsylvania. The case demonstrates that the onus of preserving issues for an appeal can fall on a litigant twice. First, all issues must be properly raised in the pleadings. Even if all issues are properly raised during trial and all parties are on notice of the issues, the issues can be waived in certain situations if post-trial motions are not filed.
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