by Arthur W. Zamosky, Esq.
Are you looking to end a controversy with another party? Or do you have uncertainty as to how an adverse situation will pan out? If so, you may want to consider a declaratory judgment action – often called a “Dec” action.
The Pennsylvania Declaratory Judgment Act (hereinafter “Act”) permits a party to bring a Dec action for a number of reasons. Dec actions are permitted to determine the construction or validity of a contract (often, but not always, an insurance contact), statute or ordinance. A Dec action can also be filed regarding a deed, will or lease as well. Once properly filed and prosecuted, a Court will render a judgment or decree as to an interested party’s rights, status or legal relations with respect to the above.
A Court will only hear a declaratory judgment action if it will end a controversy or uncertainty between the parties. However, there is no requirement that a Dec action must settle all issues that may exist between the parties. The party bringing the action has the burden to demonstrate the existence of an actual controversy. The controversy must be related to an invasion or threatened invasion of one’s legal rights. Further, a Dec action is not proper for the determination of future rights which may never occur, for moot cases or for a purely academic determination.
Under the Act, a Dec action can be brought in a Pennsylvania State Court within its respective jurisdiction, including Courts of Common Pleas. The Court must also have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. It should be noted that State Courts do not have jurisdiction to hear a Dec action for a matter within the jurisdiction of the Federal Government or which is before an administrative agency. It is also improper for a party to bring a declaratory judgment action when a contract has an arbitration clause.
A Dec action is instituted by filing a complaint in the proper jurisdiction. Selecting the proper parties to include in the suit should always be carefully considered. The Act sets forth that the parties must include all who have or claim any interest which would be affected by the declaration and no declaration shall prejudice the rights of persons not parties to the proceeding.
A judgment in a Dec action may be either affirmative or negative and has the effect of a final decree. Keep in mind that declaratory judgments are subject to the general rules regarding conclusiveness of judgments, collateral attacks and res judicata.
This is a brief overview of a declaratory judgment action and not intended to be legal advice. There are many nuances to properly bringing or defending such an action. For more information, the Act is contained at 42 Pa. §§7531 through 7541. As always, for a more detailed analysis of a specific claim or dispute, you should consult an attorney.