Local Case Notes: March 2011 Pittsburgh PFA decision

A judge of the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas has issued an interesting and potentially problematic decision concerning a recent Protection from Abuse case.

On May 13, 2010, the Defendant (Mr. Romanos) consented to a 3-year PFA in favor of the Plaintiff (Ms. Diecks). 3 years is the maximum duration for a PFA in Pennsylvania. Mr. Romanos was not represented by counsel at the time.

About 2 months later, Mr. Romanos' obtained counsel and appealed the consent PFA that had already been entered. Following legal argument, the Court agreed to re-open the PFA upon the belief that Mr. Romanos did not "understand what he agreed to" when he consented to the PFA. So, the court ordered a re-hearing of the PFA case. At the re-hearing, a PFA was once again entered, but for a significantly shorter duration.

The importance of the decision lies in the court agreeing to consider re-opening a 2 month old consent PFA. Does this mean that all PFA's with"pro se" defendants are now subject to re-opening if the Defendant claims he did not understand the terms of the PFA? This could be quite unsettling to PFA plaintiffs and their attorneys.

But this may be a singular case. The Court placed emphasis on the fact that the Defendant thought he was simply "settling" the matter and that his actual PFA Order language states that the "Defendant denies the allegations but agrees to settle the matter.". This is unusual language. Normally, the PFA would read something like: "Upon consent of the parties hereto". So, this case may be an aberration. Mr. Romanos' also claimed that he was threatened with jail time if he did not consent and was told that the consent would simply "settle the matter", but it is not clear if the court believed him.

In any event, every PFA (including Mr. Romanos') clearly states that "Without regard as to how the order was entered, this is a final order of court subject to full enforcement pursuant to the Protection from Abuse Act. Plaintiff's request for a Final Protection Order is GRANTED."

The matter is currently under appeal with the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. In the meantime, Pittsburgh counsel may wish to take extra care in drafting a consent PFA where the Defendant is unrepresented.

As always, speak to your attorney before applying this case to your circumstances. In the interest of clarity, I did not address several aspects of this opinion. Also, almost all rules have exceptions and the exceptions often have exceptions