Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted certiorari review in this matter to determine whether the Department of Transportation (PennDOT) was precluded from suspending an individual’s driving privileges based on a DUI conviction, where there was a lengthy delay between the conviction and the time the driver was notified of the suspension. Under the facts of this case, the Court concluded the trial court’s finding – that Appellee would suffer prejudice if the suspension were to be imposed at this juncture – was supported by competent evidence of record, and moreover, it demonstrated that prejudice would follow from the fact of the delay itself. Additionally, there was no dispute that Appellee did not accrue any additional Vehicle Code violations after his predicate DUI conviction. The Court therefore agreed with the Commonwealth Court majority that a suspension at this late date will have lost much of its effectiveness with regard to its underlying legislative purposes, result in prejudice which can be attributed to the delay, and ultimately deny fundamental fairness. View "PennDOT Bureau of Driver Lic. v. Middaugh" on Justia Law

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Two taxing districts undertook parallel challenges to a property’s partial tax exemption. Appellee Huston Properties, Inc. (“Taxpayer”), owned the subject property (the “Property”). In 2013, Taxpayer, claiming to be a charitable institution, sought tax-exempt status for the Property for the 2014 tax year. After a hearing, the Chester County Board of Assessment Appeals granted a partial exemption, reasoning that that portion of the Property was used for charitable purposes. The City of Coatesville appealed that decision to the Court of Common Pleas. Six days later, the Coatesville Area School District, another taxing authority encompassing the Property, lodged its own appeal, also challenging the Property’s partially-tax-exempt status. The School District also intervened in the City's case. Ultimately, the trial court affirmed the Board's grant of a partial exemption. Both the City and the School District appealed to the Commonwealth Court, and Taxpayer cross-appealed as to each, seeking fully-exempt status for the Property. In a memorandum decision, the Commonwealth Court vacated and remanded to the trial court for more specific findings to support the partial tax exemption. On remand, the trial court set forth particularized findings and conclusions, and re-affirmed its earlier decision assessing the Property. At this juncture, the City elected not to appeal to the Commonwealth Court. The School District appealed the ruling in its own case, but it did not appeal the identical, simultaneous ruling which contained the City’s docket number. Taxpayer moved to quash the School District’s appeal. The Commonwealth Court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal observing that the common pleas court’s ruling in the City’s case became final after no party appealed it. Because the School District had intervened in that matter, it was a party to those proceedings. With that premise, the court found that res judicata and collateral estoppel barred it from reaching the merits. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that issue preclusion under the rubric of collateral estoppel should not have been applied to defeat the School District’s ability to obtain merits review of its substantive arguments in the intermediate court. The Commonwealth Court's judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for a merits disposition of the consolidated cross-appeals. View "In Re: Appeal of Coatesville Area Sch Dist" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether a line of superior court cases changed the procedural requirements of Section 1106 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Code requiring restitution be set at the time of sentencing. Appellant Steven Cochran, II, briefly stayed at a vacation home owned by his grandparents. In late 2016, Appellant’s grandparents visited the home and found Appellant intoxicated. An altercation ensued, during which Appellant threatened and assaulted his grandmother, and deliberately destroyed various items of personal property. Also during the altercation, a fire was ignited, causing additional damage to the premises and personal property. Appellant was arrested and charged with terroristic threats, simple assault, two counts of criminal mischief, and three counts of harassment. At the beginning of the plea hearing, both counsel informed the trial court that the total restitution claimed exceeded $65,000.00, but that Appellant disputed whether he was responsible for that total amount because some of the destroyed or damaged property had belonged to him. Appellant entered a plea of guilty to one count each of terroristic threats, simple assault, and criminal mischief. In the non-restitution proceedings on June 29, 2017, the trial court sentenced Appellant to an aggregate terms of three to 23 months' incarceration, minus time served. A restitution hearing was set for August 28, 2017. Appealing the eventual amount of restitution ordered, Appellant objected to the trial court's jurisdiction, arguing more than 30 days had passed since the June 2017 order, and that the Commonwealth failed “to make a recommendation for restitution and the trial court failed to set restitution at the time of sentencing on June 29, 2017, as required by 18 Pa.C.S. 1106(c)(2).” A panel of the superior court agreed the trial court erred in failing to set restitution at the time of sentencing, reversed, and remanded fur resentencing. The Supreme Court determined that the superior court erroneously presumed that the “time of sentencing” for the purpose of section 1106 occurred solely on June 29, 2017. Because the final complete sentencing order was entered on September 15, 2017, the Supreme Court concluded Appellant had no basis to challenge the sentencing court’s jurisdiction under Section 1106 (c)(2). View "Pennsylvania v. Cochran II" on Justia Law

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A court of common pleas granted Appellant Noel Montalvo's petition for post-conviction relief by granting a new guilt-phase trial. The Commonwealth appealed the PCRA court’s grant of a new guilt-phase trial; it did not challenge the PCRA court’s grant of a new penalty-phase trial. Appellant cross-appealed to challenge the trial court's rejection of "a myriad of additional bases for granting him a new guilt-phase trial." Appellant was accused of killing, or acting as an accomplice to the killing of his brother's estranged common law wife and the man she may have briefly dated. Appellant's brother was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of burglary, for which he was sentenced to death. Appellant would be convicted by jury on first-degree murder charges for the death of his brother's wife, the second-degree murder of her companion, conspiracy to commit murder and burglary. The jury determined the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances in Appellant's case, and recommended a sentence of death. The PCRA court granted appellant's petition for relief on grounds of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the PCRA court that appellant established his ineffectiveness claim, and therefore, a new guilt-phase trial was warranted. In light of this conclusion, the Court did not address the issues raised by appellant in his cross-appeal. View "Pennsylvania v. Montalvo" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”)’s petition seeking review of a Commonwealth Court holding that a de facto taking of an unmined coal estate, owned by Penn Pocahontas and leased to PBS Coals, Inc. (collectively “the Coal Companies”), occurred under the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (“Code”), when PennDOT’s construction of Highway 219 on an adjoining parcel destroyed options for constructing rights-of-ways to the coal estate’s surface. In reaching that conclusion, the Commonwealth Court held that the feasibility of mining the coal, as measured by the probability of obtaining a legally required permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), was relevant only to damages. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision, agreeing with PennDOT that the legality of extracting the coal went directly to the trial court’s duty to determine whether a taking occurred. Furthermore, the Court held the Commonwealth Court erred by failing to remand the case for consideration of whether consequential damages are available to the Coal Companies. The matter was remanded to the Commonwealth Court with instructions to remand to the trial court with respect to the Coal Companies’ consequential damages claim. View "PBS Coals, et al v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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For many years, Lamar Advantage GP Co. displayed an electronic advertisement on a billboard perched atop Mount Washington, which overlooked downtown Pittsburgh. In 2016, Lamar ratcheted a static, vinyl sign over the electronic advertisement and the underlying structure. Believing that this action “enlarged” or “replaced” the sign, the City of Pittsburgh cited Lamar for breaching the City’s Zoning Code. Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board of Adjustment upheld the citation, agreeing with the City that Lamar’s actions enlarged or replaced the sign. On appeal, the Court of Common Pleas reversed the Board. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the lower court. Both courts held that the Board’s conclusion was unsupported by the record. After its review of the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred with the common pleas and Commonwealth courts: the record here did not support the Board's legal conclusion that by draping the vinyl static sign over the existing electronic sign and sign structure, Lamar violated the zoning code. View "Lamar Advantage v. City of Pgh ZBA, et al." on Justia Law

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In September 2014, prior to the request for the records at issue in this case, the Abolitionist Law Center published a report which alleged a causal connection between the ill health of inmates at SCI-Fayette, and the facility’s proximity to a fly ash dumpsite. In response to the report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) coordinated with the Department of Health (DOH) to investigate the allegations (the No Escape Investigation). Reporter Christine Haines of The Herald Standard (Appellees) sent an e-mail Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL) request to the DOC seeking documentation of inmate illnesses. The DOC denied Appellees' request in its entirety, citing several exceptions under Section 708(b) of the RTKL, as well as attorney-client privilege and deliberative process privilege grounds. Then in December 2014, in-house counsel for the DOC disclosed fifteen pages of records to Appellees. Appellees asked DOC to verify that its December disclosure was a complete response. Several additional records were subsequently released, but implicitly, the records released were the DOC's response. In February 2015, Appellees filed a petition for enforcement with the Commonwealth Court, seeking statutory sanctions and attorney fees alleging DOC demonstrated bad faith in responding to the request for records. The court identified records that the DOC should have provided. But because the panel could not discern the full extent of any non-compliance by DOC, the panel directed the parties to file a stipulation as to the disclosure status of court-identified five classes of records. Appellees' motion was thus denied without prejudice, and the court reserved judgment on the issue of bad faith sanctions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted appeal in this matter to consider the assessment of sanctions and fees based on the Commonwealth Court's finding of bad faith and willful and wanton behavior. The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed, finding that Section 1304(a0(1) of the RTKL “permit[s] recovery of attorney fees when the receiving agency determination is reversed, and it deprived a requester of access to records in bad faith.” View "Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Appellant Keith Alexander's petition for allowance of appeal asking the Court to overrule or limit Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) (OAJC), a plurality result announcing that, without limitation, the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution applied in Pennsylvania. "What Gary did not settle is whether the federal automobile exception is consistent with Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution." The Court held Article I, Section 8 afforded greater protection than the Fourth Amendment, and reaffirmed prior decisions: the Pennsylvania Constitution required both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of an automobile. View "Pennsylvania v. Alexander" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from a medical malpractice action in which appellees Nancy Raynor, Esq. and Raynor & Associates served as defense counsel for Dr. Jeffrey Gellar and Roxborough Emergency Physician Associates (collectively Roxborough). Rosalind Sutch, executrix of the estate of Rosalind Wilson (decedent), and her counsel in that lawsuit, Messa & Associates, P.C. was plaintiff in the suit. Joseph Messa, Jr., Esq. (collectively, the Messa appellants) were Sutch's counsel. In July 2009, Sutch filed a medical malpractice action alleging, among other things, Roxborough failed to obtain a CT scan and timely diagnose decedent’s lung cancer. The trial court granted Sutch’s pre-trial motion in limine, and defendants were precluded “from presenting any evidence, testimony, and/or argument regarding decedent’s smoking history” at trial. During trial, Sutch’s counsel requested an order from the trial judge directing Raynor to inform witnesses of the ban on testimony regarding decedent’s smoking history before taking the stand. The court did not issue the requested order; upon questioning, the defense expert testified the decedent was a smoker, was hypertensive, and had vascular disease. The witness did not recollect having a discussion with Raynor regarding mentioning the decedent's smoking. Plaintiff's counsel asked for a mistrial and/or sanctions. The trial judge denied the request for a mistrial and instead provided a curative instruction to the jury. At the end of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Sutch. Appellants filed post-trial motions seeking a new trial as well as an order holding Raynor in contempt and awarding sanctions in the aggregate amount of counsel fees and costs for the first trial ($1,349,063.67). The court granted the motion for a new trial. The court found Raynor to be in civil contempt and issued an order for sanctions in the amount of $946,195.16 to be divided among appellants. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether the Superior Court properly determined a request for contempt sanctions against opposing counsel raised in a post-trial motion in a lawsuit where neither counsel was a named party, constituted actionable “civil proceedings” under the Dragonetti Act. The Supreme Court concluded that intra-case filings, such as the subject post-trial motion for contempt and/or sanctions, did not constitute the “procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings” as contemplated under the Dragonetti Act. The Superior Court erred when it held otherwise. View "Raynor v. D'Annunzio" on Justia Law

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The underlying controversy entailed will-, estate-, and insurance-contest litigation commenced in 2008 by Appellee Jeffrey Stover in his capacity as the attorney for Appellant, David Clark, who was the testator’s brother. In 2010, Appellee Stover also lodged a second complaint on behalf of Monica Clark, the testator’s mother, now deceased. After the claims in both actions failed, Appellant and Mrs. Clark filed this legal malpractice action in 2015, advancing claims of professional negligence and breach of contract against Appellee Stover and his law firm. Upon Appellees’ motion, the common pleas court awarded summary judgment in their favor, finding, as relevant here, that Appellant and Mrs. Clark were aware of the alleged negligence and the asserted breach more than four years before they lodged the malpractice action. Since the applicable statutes of limitations provided for commencement of a negligence action within two years after accrual, and a contractual action within four years after breach, the county court found the claims to be untimely. The Superior Court affirmed on the "occurrence rule." The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to address the "continuous representation rule," under which the applicable statutes of limitations would not run until the date on which Appellees' representation was terminated. Appellant maintains that this rule should be adopted in Pennsylvania to permit statutes of limitations for causes of action sounding in legal malpractice to be “tolled until the attorney’s ongoing representation is complete.” While the Supreme Court recognized "there are mixed policy considerations involved, as relating to statutes of limitations relegated to the legislative province, we conclude that the appropriate balance should be determined by the General Assembly." The Superior Court judgment was affirmed. View "Clark (Est of M. Clark) v. Stover, et al" on Justia Law