Philadelphia Commerce Court Explains the Difference between “Abuse of Process” and “Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings”

Philadelphia Commerce Court Judge Ramy I. Djerassi issued an opinion last week describing the difference between “abuse of process” and “wrongful use of civil proceedings” claims under Pennsylvania law.

Plaintiff American Entrance Services maintains and repairs automatic doors used at the entrances of commercial and retail businesses. Defendant ACME Markets is a supermarket chain that used American’s services. American’s complaint alleges that a 2007 agreement outlined its responsibilities, that in 2010 ACME narrowed American’s scope of work, and that in 2014 ACME terminated the agreement without proper notice and failed to pay sums still due American.

Over the years, a number of personal injury lawsuits were brought against ACME based on malfunctioning doors causing injury. ACME joined American as a third party defendant in these suits. Some suits settled with no payment, some made small settlement payments, and others were paid substantial sums.

In addition to suing on various contract-based theories for the alleged balance due, American included a claim for abuse of process based on its repeated joinder in the personal injury actions. While some of the abuse of process claims were time-barred, others continued through discovery. ACME moved for summary judgment on those remaining abuse of process claims.

The factual “gravamen” of American’s abuse of process claim is the allegation that American repeatedly told ACME there was no basis to join American in the personal injury suits because ACME had chosen not to maintain and upgrade the doors contrary to American’s advice. However, ACME still joined American. Judge Djerassi found this was not enough to make out an abuse of process case, as a matter of law.

The court defined common law abuse of process “as the use of legal process against another primarily to accomplish a purpose for which it is not designed.” The elements of proof include showing that the defendant:

(1) used a legal process against the plaintiff,

(2) primarily to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed; and

(3) harm has been caused to the plaintiff.

The court described the claim’s essence as “the use of legal process as a tactical weapon to coerce a desired result that is not the legitimate object of the process. Thus, the gravamen of this tort is the perversion of legal process to benefit someone in achieving a purpose which is not an authorized goal of the procedure in question.” There must be “some definite act or threat not authorized by the process, or aimed at an objective not legitimate in the use of the process….” However, “there is no liability where the defendant has done nothing more than carry out the process to its authorized conclusion, even if done with bad intentions, though not necessarily the case here.”

Judge Djerassi found no abuse of process claim based on American’s joinder in the personal injury actions. “The mere act of joining [American] in lawsuits over doors that [it] had installed and repaired over the years is not sufficient to show that ACME used the process improperly. Nor is it sufficient to show that ACME perverted the process by joining AES for an illegitimate objective after process was served. As a practical matter in commercial cases, joining additional parties in personal injury cases like those ACME is defending is acknowledged common practice among contracting parties.”

Rather, American had to “allege and provide evidence that ACME acted or threatened [American] with action unauthorized by legitimate civil process or continued to do so after process was served.” Such evidence was “absent from the record”.

In a footnote, the court compared abuse of process with the cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings. After reciting the alleged facts unsuccessfully used to support the abuse of process claim, the court stated that “at best”, American purported to state a claim for wrongful use of civil process.  Abuse of process claims are not based on improperly initiating a case, but “on a perversion of the legal process after it is initiated.” Thus, American’s allegations of improperly filing meritless joinder claims did not fall within the abuse of process category.

Judge Djerassi cited a well-known Pennsylvania Superior Court decision, Hart v. O’Malley, 647 A.2d 542 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1994), for the contrasting proposition that an action “filed for an improper purpose only establishes a cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings.” Obviously, the court is not finding there was a wrongful use of civil proceedings in this case, but is making the point that the relevant facts would “at best” fall within that category if a wrongful use suit were brought on those facts.

Judge Djerassi’s opinion in American Entrance Services v. ACME Markets, Inc., can be found here.