Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries
In Re: Koepfinger
Appellant Joseph Koepfinger (“Father”) was a nonagenarian and father of several adult children, including Appellee Margaret Koepfinger (“Daughter”). In September 2016, shortly after the death of Father’s wife/Daughter’s mother, Father executed a power of attorney (“POA”), naming Daughter as his agent. The POA gave Daughter the authority to, among other things, create an irrevocable trust for Father; it further provided that Father could revoke the POA but only in writing. Soon after the execution of the POA, tensions began to build between Father and Daughter due to Father’s developing relationship with Madeline Masucci (“Masucci”). In 2017, Father allegedly orally informed Daughter that he revoked the POA and that he executed a new power of attorney, naming his son/Daughter’s brother as his agent. Daughter, however, claimed she was not informed of these events until May of 2018. In the meantime, in April 2018, acting as Father’s agent under the POA, Daughter created an irrevocable trust for Father, placing a substantial amount of his assets into that trust. Daughter named herself as trustee. After Daughter allegedly was informed that Father revoked the POA, she filed a Petition for Declaratory Judgment requesting, in relevant part, judicial declarations that: (1) the 2016 POA was not revoked at the time that she created the trust; (2) the creation and funding of the trust was within her scope of authority under the POA; and (3) the trust is valid. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether a judicial determination that a power of attorney was void ab initio invalidated an irrevocable trust created by the purported agent under the void power of attorney. The orphans’ court answered this question in the affirmative, but the Superior Court reversed. The Supreme Court held that, when a court concludes that a power of attorney is a nullity, any action taken under the auspices of the power of attorney is likewise a nullity. Consequently, the Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and reinstated the orphans’ court’s order. View "In Re: Koepfinger" on Justia Law
Posted in: Trusts & Estates
Bindas. v. PennDOT
In 2015, the Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) began constructing a diamond interchange and installing a drainage system on property abutting Interstate 70 (“I-70”) in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The property’s owner, Appellant Donald Bindas, petitioned for the appointment of a board of viewers, seeking compensation for this encumbrance upon his land. PennDOT asserted that its predecessor, the Department of Highways (“DOH”), had secured a highway easement for the land in question in 1958. Both the trial court and the Commonwealth Court agreed, dismissing Bindas’ suit. Upon its review of the statutory authority that PennDOT invoked, as well as the record, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that DOH’s failure to comply with the requirements of 36 P.S. § 670-210 rendered that easement invalid. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order, and remanded with the instruction that PennDOT’s preliminary objections be overruled. View "Bindas. v. PennDOT" on Justia Law
Klar v. Dairy Farmers of America
In August 2014, Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (“DFA”) sponsored a golf outing for its employees at Tanglewood Golf Course in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. As a condition of attendance, DFA required employees to provide a “monetary contribution to offset costs and expenses” associated with the event, which it used to pay for items such as “greens fees, food and alcohol.” One of DFA’s employees, Roger Williams, made the contribution and attended the golf outing. According to Appellant David Klar, DFA had reason to know that Williams was an alcoholic and that he previously had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. At the event, Williams’ alcohol consumption was unsupervised, and he drank beyond the point of visible intoxication. Williams departed the golf outing in his car. While driving, Williams encountered Klar, who was operating a motorcycle in the southbound lane. Williams swerved across the center line into Klar’s path. The resulting collision caused Klar to suffer numerous and grievous injuries. Klar sued both Williams and DFA, contending that they were jointly and severally liable for his injuries. This case calls upon the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to revisit precedents that have prevailed for half a century and that imposed liability upon persons and entities licensed to engage in the commercial sale of alcohol while limiting the liability of non-licensees and “social hosts.” The lower courts applied these precedents to conclude that an organization which hosted an event at which alcohol was provided, but was not a liquor licensee, could not be held liable for injuries caused by a guest who became intoxicated at the event. Finding no basis to disturb the long-settled law of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Klar v. Dairy Farmers of America" on Justia Law
PA State Police v. ACLU of PA
The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Commonwealth Court abused its discretion when, sua sponte, it issued a remand to the Office of Open Records (“OOR”) for additional fact-finding after that court already had determined that the agency subject to the record request failed to meet its burden of proving that an exception to disclosure requirements applied. To this the Court concluded that such an abuse of discretion occurred, and accordingly judgment was reversed. The Court remanded this matter to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings. View "PA State Police v. ACLU of PA" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Towles
Appellant Jakeem Towles appealed the dismissal of his second petition for post conviction relief (PCRA). Towles was convicted for the 2010 homicide of Cornell Stewart, Jr. and the attempted homicide of John Wright following an altercation at a rap performance in Columbia, Pennsylvania. The Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County (PCRA court) concluded that Towles’ petition was untimely filed and, alternatively, without merit. Towles claimed that the Commonwealth had made threats and promises to a witness to induce him to testify against Towles at trial. In apparent recognition of the facial untimeliness of his second PCRA petition, Towles asserted that his petition met the so-called “governmental interference” and “newly discovered facts” timeliness exceptions in the Post Conviction Relief Act. Towles further claimed that he acted with due diligence in asserting his claim within the one-year time limit. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred with the PCRA court's finding that Towles' petition was untimely, and affirmed dismissal. View "Pennsylvania v. Towles" on Justia Law
McLaughlin v. Nahata, et al.
During their employment with Dialysis Clinic, Inc. (DCI), the Doctors maintained staff privileges and worked at Washington Hospital. In 2013, Alyssa McLaughlin was admitted to the Hospital and received treatment from, among other medical staff, the Doctors, Kathryn Simons, M.D., Anne F. Josiah, M.D., Thomas Pirosko, D.O., and Ashely Berkley, D.O. At some point during or after that treatment, McLaughlin sustained severe and permanent neurological injuries. Attributing those injuries to negligence in her treatment, McLaughlin and her husband, William McLaughlin (collectively, the McLaughlins), initiated an action against the Doctors, the Hospital, and the other physicians noted above who were responsible for her care. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether, as a matter of law, the Hospital could seek contribution and/or indemnity from DCI for negligence committed by DCI’s employees (the Doctors). The trial and superior courts both concluded that, although traditional principles of contribution and indemnity did not apply cleanly these particular circumstances, equitable principles of law permitted the Hospital to seek both contribution and indemnity from DCI. As a result, the trial court denied DCI’s motion for summary relief, and the superior court affirmed. The Supreme Court was unanimous in finding that, if the Hospital and DCI were determined to be vicariously liable for the negligence of the Doctors, the law permitted the Hospital to seek contribution from DCI. The Court was evenly divided on the question of whether the Hospital could also seek indemnification from DCI. Given the decision on contribution and inability to reach a decision on indemnity, the superior court was affirmed on those questions. View "McLaughlin v. Nahata, et al." on Justia Law
In Re Adopt. of: M.E.L.
In an appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether a proposed adoption by a mother’s long-term partner, in conjunction with the termination of the biological father’s parental rights, constituted “cause” to excuse the relinquishment requirement of 23 Pa.C.S. § 2903 with respect to the mother under Section 2901. The Court found that, in order to seek termination of Father’s parental rights and the proposed adoption by Partner under Section 2901, Mother had to demonstrate cause as to why she could not satisfy the statutory requirement, i.e., why she and Partner cannot marry, and then establish why the relinquishment requirement under Section 2711(d) was satisfied under the facts of her case. As the orphans’ court terminated Father’s parental rights without first evaluating whether Mother established cause under Section 2901, and given that Mother did not provide evidence pertaining to this “cause” analysis, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order remanding to the orphans’ court for consideration of whether Mother could establish cause, as defined in this opinion, to excuse the relinquishment requirement under the facts of this case. View "In Re Adopt. of: M.E.L." on Justia Law
Posted in: Family Law
Mimi Investors, LLC v. Tufano, P., et al.
Mimi Investors, LLC (“Mimi Investors”) sued Paul Tufano, David Crocker, Dennis Cronin, and Neil Matheson (“ORCA Officers”), the directors and officers of ORCA Steel, LLC (“ORCA Steel”), a now-defunct data storage company, alleging that ORCA Officers made material misrepresentations of fact in violation of the Pennsylvania common law and Section 1- 401(b) of the Pennsylvania Securities Act ("PSA"). Mimi Investors described a meeting held in February of 2014 during which ORCA Officers allegedly represented to Mimi Investors that they had received 400 orders for computer data storage space (“CDS Orders”) for ORCA Steel’s new data storage facility. To secure financing for the purpose of servicing the CDS Orders, ORCA Officers sought promissory notes to increase capital. In October 2014, ORCA Steel ceased making interest payments on the loan. ORCA Steel did not respond to Mimi Investors’ demand letter, sent in August 2015, which sought to cure the default. Mimi Investors asserted that neither “construction financing nor the fulfillment of the new orders materialized.” It also averred that, on October 21, 2014, ORCA Officers told Mimi Investors that they “had known for months that the loan to fund new construction was not viable” because the CDS Orders were “not investment grade.” Mimi Investors claimed that “these misrepresentations regarding available construction financing and committed orders, as well as other statements by” ORCA Officers, “were material and untrue within the meaning of the” PSA, and that Mimi Investors “relied on these misrepresentations in deciding to make the [l]oan[.]” In a matter of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether a plaintiff must plead and prove scienter as an element of 70 P.S. § 1-401(b) of the PSA. After careful review, the Court held that under the plain language of its text, Section 1-401(b) of the PSA did not contain a scienter element. However, the PSA provided a defense to civil liability under Section 1-401(b) if the defendant could show they “did not know and in the exercise of reasonable care could not have known of the untruth or omission[.]” View "Mimi Investors, LLC v. Tufano, P., et al." on Justia Law
The Bert Company v. Turk, et al.
The Bert Company, dba Northwest Insurance Services (“Northwest”), was an insurance brokerage firm with clientele in northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York. From 2005 to 2017, Matthew Turk (“Turk”) was employed as an insurance broker with Northwest. First National Insurance Agency, LLC (“FNIA” or "First National") was an insurance brokerage firm. To grow its business in that region, First National developed a plan to takeover Northwest, initially by convincing key Northwest employees to leave Northwest for FNIA and to bring their clients with them. Through the fall and winter of 2016, Turk repeatedly met with First National about the plan with the hope that First National could gut Northwest by hiring the bulk of its highest producers, acquiring their clients, and ultimately forcing that company to sell its remaining book of clients. Pursuant to the plan, Turk remained at Northwest to convince the company to sell its remaining business to First National. Northwest refused, choosing instead to fire Turk and initiate legal action. In this appeal by permission, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opined on the jurisprudence of the United State Supreme Court addressing the constitutionality of an award of punitive damages by a civil jury in the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Court's grant of allowance addressed the narrow issue of the appropriate ratio calculation measuring the relationship between the amount of punitive damages awarded against multiple defendants who are joint tortfeasors and the compensatory damages awarded. The superior court calculated the punitive to compensatory damages ratio using a per-defendant approach, rather than a per-judgment approach. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court generally endorsed the per-defendant approach as consistent with federal constitutional principles that require consideration of a defendant’s due process rights. Further, the Court concluded that under the facts and circumstances of this case, it was appropriate to consider the potential harm that was likely to occur from the concerted conduct of the defendants in determining whether the measure of punishment was both reasonable and proportionate. View "The Bert Company v. Turk, et al." on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Rivera
In April 2018, Florencia Mainetto (Florencia) recorded cellphone videos of her daughter (G.R.) and her niece (C.P.), both minors at the time, accusing Appellant Jonathan Rivera (Rivera) of sexual abuse. After sharing these videos with Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Higdon, Florencia and her sister, Katherin Mainetto (Katherin - C.P.’s mother), brought G.R. and C.P. to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Towanda (Advocacy Center) for formal forensic interviews. Trooper Higdon observed these interviews through a window. A nurse at the Advocacy Center then examined G.R. and C.P. but did not find any physical evidence of abuse. Later, two more minors, S.C. and S.M., made similar allegations against Rivera. Combined, the victims alleged that Rivera abused them between the years of 2009 and 2018. On June 26, 2018, Trooper Higdon filed a criminal complaint and affidavit of probable cause against Rivera, alleging, inter alia, rape of a child. In this discretionary appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the issue presented involved harmless error in the context of post-arrest silence. At trial, the prosecutor case asked the arresting officer a series of questions about the defendant’s post-arrest behavior, particularly whether the defendant denied the charges against him. Over a defense objection, the officer told the jury, four separate times, that the defendant, upon his arrest, stood mute and denied none of the charges. The Superior Court ruled that this testimony was admitted in error but, relying on authorities discussing pre-arrest silence, found it harmless. The Supreme Court reiterated that different harmless error standards apply when evaluating testimonial references to a defendant’s post-arrest versus pre-arrest silence. "Oriented correctly, we conclude that the testimony in this case was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, we must award the defendant a new trial." View "Pennsylvania v. Rivera" on Justia Law