In this subsurface mineral rights case out of Lycoming County the Superior Court weighed in on the requirements for obtaining alternative service in a quiet title action. It also looked at the impact of failing to include indispensable parties despite 20 years passing between the entering of the judgment and defendants’ motion to open/strike.
Northern Forests (NF) acquired over 3,600 acres of subsurface rights by deed in 1987. In 1988 NF filed a quiet title action against five named defendants, their heirs and assigns, and anyone claiming by, through or under them on the theory of adverse possession. Allegedly due to errors in conveyance committed by NF’s predecessors in title, NF was unaware that none of the named defendants had any interest in the subsurface rights. These rights were instead held by Moore, Yates, and Proctor. A day after filing its complaint, NF filed an affidavit to obtain alternative service by advertisement. Despite the fact that NF’s affidavit said nothing about its efforts to locate the defendants, the court granted the motion. Publications were then filed purporting to notify the named defendants and their “successors and assigns” without naming Moore, Yates, or Proctor. When none of the defendants came forward, final judgment was entered in 1989.
In 2012 successors in title to Moore, Yates, and Proctor filed petitions to strike/open the 1989 judgment. They argued the judgment was void because Moore, Yates, and Proctor were indispensable parties and that NF’s affidavit had been deficient for not explaining why regular service could not be made. The Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County struck the judgment for failing to make proper service on the original named defendants. NF was then permitted to file an amended appeal alternatively asserting adverse possession before the 1989 judgement or adverse possession after the 1989 judgment. The court sustained the preliminary objections of the Defendants and dismissed NF’s amended complaint for failure to state a cause of action. NF appealed.
On appeal the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. It found that two jurisdictional defects appeared on the surface of the record: (1) NF had failed to join indispensable parties, and NF had failed to make proper service on any defendants. The court stated that no matter how exhaustive or diligent NF’s title search had been, its failure to join Moore, Yates, and Proctor had deprived the court of jurisdiction. Merely naming a predecessor in title and his “heirs and assigns” was insufficient. The court also found that the 1988 order permitting alternative service was in error because NF’s affidavit had failed to describe efforts to discover persons holding an interest in the property. As to NF’s adverse possession claims, the court reasoned that NF’s 1987 deed had not purported to convey any adverse possession rights to NF and therefore this argument failed. It also held that the void 1989 judgment could not be used to acquire title by adverse possession.