In a non-precedential case decided on April 29, 2022 a panel of the Superior Court tackled a common and nettlesome question. We live in an age when petitions filed under the Protection from Abuse statute are almost always the work of an unrepresented party. Even when counsel is provided to assist in drafting the petition the “guts” of the petition (Paragraphs 11-13 of the Pa.R.C.P. 1905 form) typically elude any correction or amendment by the attorney.
This is what occurred in Butler County last August when Dawn Young filed for protection from her former spouse Gregory Young. While quoting extensively from the petition, the Superior Court does a fair amount of grammatical editing. Meanwhile, the case presented is a compelling one although the petition references events over the course of decades without providing any real specificity as to time and place.
The petition was filed on August 1, 2021. The final hearing was nine days later. The relief was granted but on appeal, the former husband asserted that much of the evidence was not referenced in the petition and the trial court cited these incidents in granting relief under the PFA statute. The appellant complained that the introduction of evidence beyond the scope of the petition violated his due process rights.
The memorandum opinion doesn’t really respond to that issue. The Court notes the purpose of the statute and its abuse of discretion standard. The Court then suggests that the Appellant never showed how he was prejudiced by allowing testimony beyond the scope of the petition. That claim really doesn’t stack up, especially in a setting where the evidence referenced in the opinion appears to have included matters that occurred decades ago. Rule 1019 (f) states that averments of time, place and items of special damage shall be specifically stated. This rule would seem to command special attention in a setting where trials are to occur within two weeks of the complaint and discovery is expressly forbidden by Pa.R.C.P. 1930.5 without court permission.
What isn’t mentioned in the appellate opinion is waiver. If the Appellant permitted the petitioner to testify outside the scope of her pleading, it would seem that he is stuck with the record he permitted the court to make. Moreover, given the nature of what may be termed the “historic” (in contrast with “current”) abuse it also seems the trial court could decide whether it needed to hear the old facts and, if necessary, provide temporary relief based on the current information while inviting the parties to amend the petition and resume the final hearing for a time when both sides could come prepared. Most judges aren’t going to like a supplemental hearing but Section 11 of the state constitution and the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution do support the idea that defendants should have notice of what conduct is in play and time to prepare a defense. In a world where the remedies can encompass exclusion from one’s property for three years and there is a risk of criminal prosecution for a violation of an abuse order, these petitions need to strictly conform to the fact pleading requirement Pennsylvania has long demanded and the probata (proofs) should have a nexus to the allegata (allegations). Any other approach actually encourages petitioners to dumb down their pleadings and save their evidentiary ammunition for the final hearing.
Young v. Young, 1087 WDA 2021 (4/29/22)