Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

by
In February 2015, Appellant Joshua Prince (“Prince”) submitted a Right to Know Law (RTKL) request to the City of Harrisburg seeking records related to the Protect Harrisburg Legal Defense Fund (the “Fund”), which the City created to defray legal costs associated with defending challenges to local firearms ordinances. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to decide whether a spreadsheet created by the City to show the receipt of funds from donors to the Fund constituted a financial record as defined in the RTKL. The Supreme Court found that although records that would disclose the identity of individual donors were generally exempted from disclosure under the RTKL, if those records could be characterized as financial records, public access was statutorily required. The Court concluded the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the donor spreadsheet was not a financial record and reversed. However, in light of its decision in Pennsylvania State Educ. Ass’n v. Commonwealth, Department of Community and Economic Development, 148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016) (“PSEA II”), the Court held that this case had to be remanded for the performance of a balancing test to determine whether any of the donors’ personal information may be protected from access under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. View "City of Harrisburg v. Prince" on Justia Law

by
Decedent Sophia Krasinski died testate in 2006. The primary assets of her estate included three parcels of real estate. The Executor was one of the Decedent’s four children, who also included Eleanor Krasinski, James Krasinski, and Patricia Krasinski-Dunzik. Decedent’s will directed that each of her four children were equal beneficiaries of the residue of the estate. In 2010, the Executor filed a petition to permit the private sale of real estate to heirs. The orphans’ court granted the Executor’s petition to permit the sale. Dunzik and her husband sued the estate based upon an alleged oral contract with the Decedent regarding the property. After a nonjury trial, the trial court ruled that there was no enforceable oral contract between Dunzik and Decedent and dismissed the case. This trial court order also lifted a stay on the orphans’ court’s prior order approving the private sale of the Decedent’s lands. Dunzik did not appeal the trial court’s rulings. The sale proceeded; the Executor, James and his wife, and Dunzik attended, at which time Dunzik stated that she would not be bidding because she believed that she already owned the properties. Dunzik again challenged the completed sales. This discretionary appeal presented the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with an opportunity to clarify the proper scope of Rule 342(a)(6) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure, which provided for an appeal as of right from an order of the Orphans’ Court Division that “determin[es] an interest in real or personal property.” The statute further provided that the failure of a party to immediately appeal an order appealable under, inter alia, Rule 342(a)(6), constitutes a waiver of all objections to the order. The Supreme Court concluded Dunzik waived all objections to the orphans’ court’s order approving the private sale. View "In Re: Estate of Krasinski" on Justia Law

by
In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether either the common law or the First Amendment conferred a qualified right of access to the press and the public to inspect certain search warrant materials issued in connection with a grand jury investigation. A Pittsburgh television station was investigating allegations of improper sexual relationships between faculty and students at a local high school. The station sough access to a search warrant issued to search the school Administrative Building, and an order sealing the affidavit of probable cause supporting that search warrant. The Supreme Court determined no such right existed where, as here, the request was made while the grand jury’s investigation is ongoing. View "2014 Allegheny County IGJ Apl of: WPXI" on Justia Law

Posted in: Constitutional Law
by
Jeffrey Olson entered an open guilty plea to one count of driving under the influence of alcohol, general impairment (“DUI”) in September 2015. This was Olson’s third DUI offense, and, at the time, he was subject to a sentence enhancement due to his refusal to submit to blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) testing. In December 2015, the trial court sentenced Olson to a term of eighteen months’ to five years’ imprisonment, applying a then-applicable mandatory minimum sentencing provision. Olson did not file a direct appeal, and his sentence became final on January 20, 2016. On June 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016), which held, inter alia, that a state may not “impose criminal penalties on the refusal to submit” to a warrantless blood test. On August 17, 2016, Olson filed a timely, pro se petition for relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), challenging, amongst other things, the legality of his sentence in light of Birchfield. The PCRA court affirmed Olson's conviction and sentence, finding that because Olson's judgment of sentence was already final, he might be entitled to benefit from Birchfield if that decision were deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that because Birchfield did not set forth a “categorical constitutional guarantee” that placed criminal punishment for blood test refusal “altogether beyond the State’s power to impose” but rather, established a procedural requirement that, once satisfied, authorized that punishment, the Birchfield rule was not substantive. Accordingly, Birchfield did not apply retroactively on post-conviction collateral review. View "Pennsylvania v. Olson" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Joan Grove was awarded a jury verdict of $250,000.00 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, in a personal injury action against Appellee, Port Authority of Allegheny County. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court vacated the award of damages and remanded for a new trial on the basis that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on negligence per se. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine whether the trial court’s failure to give a negligence per se charge, where the jury nevertheless found Grove negligent, amounted to error because the negligence per se charge was relevant to apportionment of factual cause. The Supreme Court concluded it did. Because the jury found Grove negligent, any perceived error in failing to instruct on negligence per se was harmless error. Importantly, the Commonwealth Court did not make a finding of prejudice in its harmless error analysis; “it merely opined the proposed instructions could have influenced the jury. The standard is not that the omitted instructions could have influenced the jury. Prejudice is required. A lack of any prejudice analysis undermines the Commonwealth Court’s conclusion that the error was not harmless.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order reversing the trial court and granting Port Authority a new trial. This matter was remanded to the Commonwealth Court for disposition of Grove’s cross-appeal. View "Grove v. Port Authority of Allegheny County" on Justia Law

by
Susan Yanakos suffered from a genetic condition called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD). In the summer of 2003, one of Susan’s physicians, Dr. Amadeo Marcos, advised her that she needed a liver transplant due to the progression of her AATD. Because Susan was not a candidate for a cadaver liver, her son Christopher volunteered to donate a lobe of his liver to his mother. Christopher advised one of his mother’s physicians that several of his family members suffered from AATD, but that he was unsure whether he did as well. Additional laboratory tests for Christopher were ordered, but Christopher was never informed him of the results, which allegedly showed that Christopher had AATD and was not a candidate for liver donation. One month after Christopher’s consultation with physicians, surgery proceeded; a portion of Christopher’s liver was removed and transplanted into Susan. More than twelve years later, Christopher, Susan, and Susan’s husband, William Yanakos sued UPMC, and the doctors involved, raising claims for battery/lack of informed consent, medical malpractice, and loss of consortium. The Yanakoses alleged that they did not discover Appellees’ negligence until eleven years after the transplant surgery, when additional testing revealed that Susan still had AATD, which the transplant should have eliminated. In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the seven-year statute of repose in Section 1303.513(a) of the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act (MCARE Act) comported with Article I, Section 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Because the Court concluded the seven-year statute of repose was not substantially related to an important government interest, it reversed the Superior Court’s order affirming the trial court’s grant of judgment on the pleadings and remanded for further proceedings. View "Yanakos. v. UPMC, et al" on Justia Law

by
Kenneth and Theresa-Ramondo purchased a property in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1991 known as a “flag lot:” a narrow strip (the “pole”) that connected the main portion to a public street. The Ramondo pole extended six hundred feet from Garrett Mill Road to the main portion of the Ramondo property, the flag portion, which was approximately 5.62 acres. Thaddeus Bartkowski, III, and Crystal Anne Crawford (“the Bartkowskis”) bought the neighboring property 2012, which was also a flag lot. The pole of the Bartkowski property, also measuring twenty-five feet wide, abutted and ran parallel with the Ramondos’ pole. The flag portion of the Bartkowski property was approximately 5.25 acres. The portion of land at issue in this appeal involved the adjoining Ramondo and Bartkowski poles, upon which the Ramondos constructed a driveway that gave them access to Garrett Mill Road. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider whether a landowner had to prove impossibility of alternative access arising from zoning and regulatory prohibitions or conditions of the land in order to establish an easement by necessity. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order denying the Ramondos an easement by necessity based upon the theory that establishing necessity requires proving impossibility of alternative access. The Supreme Court concluded this was error, reversed the Superior Court, remanded for further proceedings. View "Bartkowski v. Ramondo" on Justia Law

by
In 2014, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers conducted a traffic stop after observing Appellant Kirk Hays fail to use his right turn signal and then twice cross over the white fog lines on the roadway. Upon interaction with Appellant, a Trooper smelled alcohol and suspected Appellant was driving under the influence of alcohol. Following two failed field sobriety tests, Appellant was taken into custody and transported to a DUI Center, whereupon Appellant acquiesced to a blood draw; testing revealed his BAC to be 0.192. Appellant was charged with three summary offenses and two counts of DUI. Appellant moved to suppress all evidence resulting from the traffic stop, arguing the Trooper lacked probable cause to stop his vehicle. The motion was denied, trial was held and Appellant was ultimately convicted and sentenced only to Count 1, DUI. Appellant filed a post-sentence motion on September 1, 2016, alleging he was entitled to a new trial because of Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016). The Commonwealth filed an answer, asserting Appellant waived any challenge to the voluntariness of his consent by failing to raise the issue in his omnibus pre-trial motion. The Commonwealth conceded Appellant’s case was not yet final when Birchfield was decided, and that Appellant first raised his Birchfield issue in his timely filed post-sentence motion. However, the Commonwealth argued that retroactivity only applied in cases where the question was properly preserved at all stages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in this matter to determine whether Birchfield applied to all cases not yet final when the decision was rendered, and determined Appellant was not entitled to retroactive application of Birchfield based on his failure to preserve the issue below. View "Pennsylvania v. Hays" on Justia Law

by
At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this matter was whether a criminal defendant’s conviction of carrying a concealed firearm without a license could be sustained on a constructive-possession theory where the gun was physically held and used by another person during the alleged crime. Appellant Alanah Peters asked the victim, Jesse Hicks, for money to help her father evade eviction. At first Hicks promised to give the father money. He and appellant had an argument, and Hicks rescinded his offer. Two men and appellant arrived at Hicks’ apartment, one holding a handgun. The men forced their way into Hicks’ bedroom. Unable to find any cash, the unarmed man told the other to shoot. The shot pierced Hicks’ jaw, tongue, and shoulder, and dislodged some of his teeth. The assailants kicked Hicks in the face and left the room. Appellant, who had remained outside the room, suggested they check Hicks’ pockets. The men re-entered the room and, as Hicks lay bleeding on the floor, removed his pants, took his $700, and fled. The men were never identified or apprehended. Appellant was charged with numerous offenses including attempted murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and conspiracy. Most relevant to this appeal, she was charged with carrying a concealed firearm without a license. Under the facts of this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined constructive possession could not be used to support appellant’s conviction for carrying a concealed firearm without a license. View "Pennsylvania v. Peters" on Justia Law

by
In 2012, Appellee attended a fraternity party and consumed alcohol. Sometime thereafter, he encountered University of Pittsburgh police officers answering a call from dispatch that there was an intoxicated individual attempting to harm himself outside of one of the residence halls of the university. Officers observed though Appellee appeared to be intoxicated, he had sustained superficial cuts to his arm and wrist area, and that other officers found a small knife attached to a money clip on the ground near where Appellee was found. Appellee was transferred to a nearby psychiatric treatment facility wherein Appellee's attending psychiatrist applied to extend Appellee's stay for 20 days. Section 303 of the Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”) required the holding of a hearing on the application before a mental health review officer or a judge at the facility in which the involuntarily committed person was being housed, and also directed that counsel be appointed to represent the person at that hearing. At the 2015 expungement hearing, Appellee averred he was not advised of any hearing prior to involuntary commitment, nor was he appointed counsel. Over two years later, Appellee filed his expungement petition, broadly alleging there was no lawful basis for his commitment." The State Police argued to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court the lower courts ruling on this petition lacked jurisdiction to order expungement. The Supreme Court agreed and reversed a superior court order that reversed a common pleas court's order dismissing Appellee's petition. View "In Re: J.M.Y." on Justia Law