Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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On March 6, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency (“Proclamation”) pursuant to 35 Pa.C.S. 7301(c), a provision of the Emergency Management Services Code. This Proclamation activated many emergency resources. Days later, the Governor issued an order closing businesses that were not considered life-sustaining. Four Pennsylvania businesses and one individual challenged the Governor's Order, alleging that it violated the Emergency Management Services Code and various constitutional provisions. On April 13, 2020, in an exercise of its King’s Bench jurisdiction, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Governor’s order complied with both the statute and Commonwealth Constitution. On June 3, 2020, the Governor renewed the Proclamation for an additional ninety days. June 9, 2020, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives adopted a concurrent resolution to order the Governor to terminate the disaster emergency. The matter reached a loggerhead and went again before the Supreme Court. The Court issued an opinion stating "we find it necessary to make clear what this Court is, and is not, deciding in this case. We express no opinion as to whether the Governor’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes wise or sound policy. Similarly, we do not opine as to whether the General Assembly, in seeking to limit or terminate the Governor’s exercise of emergency authority, presents a superior approach for advancing the welfare of our Commonwealth’s residents." Instead, the Court decided here a narrow legal question: whether the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Emergency Services Management Code permitted the General Assembly to terminate the Governor’s Proclamation of Disaster Emergency by passing a concurrent resolution, without presenting that resolution to the Governor for his approval or veto. To this, the Supreme Court responded "no": "because the General Assembly intended that H.R. 836 terminate the Governor’s declaration of disaster emergency without the necessity of presenting that resolution to the Governor for his approval or veto, we hold, pursuant to our power under the Declaratory Judgments Act, that H.R. 836 is a legal nullity." View "Wolf v. Scarnati" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in determining a school bus surveillance video sought in a request for public records pursuant to the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) was not exempt from disclosure under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. 1232g. Rudy Miller, on behalf of The Express Times (collectively, Requester), submitted a RTKL request to the District. Therein, Requester sought information in connection with an incident involving an elementary school teacher who, according to Requester, had roughly physically disciplined a child on a school bus outside of the school. Although its rationale departed from the analysis of the Commonwealth Court, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s order, with instructions to redact students’ images from the video prior to disclosure. View "Easton Area Sch. Dist. v. Miller" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was a challenge to a local judicial district’s policy prohibiting the use of medical marijuana by individuals under court supervision, such as probationers. Relevant here, the applicable statutory authority, the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act, contained an immunity provision protecting patients from government sanctions. In September 2019, the 52nd Judicial District -- comprised of the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas (the “District”) -- announced a “Medical Marijuana Policy” under the issuing authority of the president judge. The Policy prohibited “the active use of medical marijuana, regardless of whether the defendant has a medical marijuana card, while the defendant is under supervision by the Lebanon County Probation Services Department.” Petitioners were individuals under the supervision of the Lebanon County probation agency who filed suit in the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction to challenge the validity of the Policy in light of the MMA's immunity provision. Separately, Petitioners filed an application for special relief in the nature of a preliminary injunction. Soon thereafter, the Commonwealth Court proceeded, sua sponte, to transfer the case to this Court, concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to grant the requested relief. The District then filed its response in this Court opposing preliminary injunctive relief. It claimed, among other things, that Petitioners were unlikely to prevail on the merits, arguing, inter alia, that the General Assembly didn’t intend the MMA to override the courts’ ability to supervise probationers and parolees. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Petitioners' request for declaratory and injunctive relief. The Policy was deemed to be contrary to the immunity accorded by the MMA, and as such, should not be enforced. "[N]othing impedes a revocation hearing or other lawful form of redress, where there is reasonable cause to believe that a probationer or other person under court supervision has possessed or used marijuana in a manner that has not been made lawful by the enactment." View "Gass et al. v. 52nd Judicial District" on Justia Law

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On April 1, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a per curiam order reversing the judgment of sentence of Appellant Jerome McIntyre who had been convicted for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. Appellant’s challenge to his sentence was raised in proceedings under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). Because the Supreme Court found his challenge to be meritorious, but because his prison sentence expired on April 7, 2020, thus terminating the Court's jurisdiction to grant relief as of that date, the Court took the unusual action of issuing its April 1, 2020 order, with an opinion to follow. The Court set forth its reasons in support of that order. Appellant argued that, after the Court’s decision in "Neiman," the registration statute, Section 4915, became null and void dating back to its inception, and, thus, it was as if this statute never existed. Consequently, he maintained it would violate due process to uphold his conviction and to permit his incarceration thereunder. Appellant highlighted that the Court recognized the principle that a statute which was stricken for constitutional infirmity had to be regarded as void ab initio and treated as if it never existed. To this, the Supreme Court concurred and held Appellant was entitled to reversal of his sentence and discharge from his conviction. View "Pennsylvania v. McIntyre" on Justia Law

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Appellee James Williams, a Pennsylvania state inmate, filed a petition for mandamus relief in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction. He alleged he was subjected to a search upon leaving his employment post in the prison kitchen, and an officer discovered several pounds of sugar concealed in his boots. The petition further asserted that, after a unit manager conducted a support team hearing at his cell door, Appellee was removed from his position of employment in the kitchen. Appellee claimed the Department’s failure to follow procedures pertaining to misconducts set forth in its prison regulations resulted in a denial of due process. The Commonwealth Court granted summary declaratory and injunctive relief and directed the Department of Corrections to comply with the regulations’ procedural requirements. The dissent to the Commonwealth Court's decision opined the majority's decision went against the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Bronson v. Central Office Review Committee, 721 A.2d 357 (1998), which held that the Commonwealth Court lacked original jurisdiction to entertain a prisoner’s due process challenge to the actions of prison officials, where the inmate failed to assert a constitutionally-protected liberty or property interest. The dissent maintained inmates had no constitutionally-protected interest in maintaining prison employment. The Supreme Court found Appellee has never advanced a colorable defense on the merits: he repeatedly confirmed he tried to leave the kitchen with half pounds of sugar secreted in his boots. As such, the Supreme Court revered the Commonwealth Court, and remanded for dismissal of Appellee's petition for review. View "Williams v. Wetzel" on Justia Law

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In Protz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Derry Area School District), 161 A.3d 827 (2017), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a statutory regime per which the duration of workers’ compensation benefits could be curtailed was invalid, since integral terms of the enactment yielded an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. The issue this case presented for the Court's review concerned the retroactive application of Protz to a scenario in which the pertinent constitutional challenge to the statute was advanced during the course of direct appellate review. In 2000, Appellee David Smuck (“Claimant”) suffered a work-related back injury, for which he received total disability benefits since 2003. Appellant Dana Holding Corporation (“Employer”) requested an IRE pursuant to the then-extant impairment rating regime. Claimant appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (the “WCAB” or the “Board”), and the proceedings before the Board were stayed at Employer’s behest pending the Protz decsion. Ultimately, Claimant's total disability status was reinstated as of the date of the disputed IRE. The Employer appealed, but the Commonwealth Court affirmed, finding Protz did not apply retroactively. The Supreme Court agreed: "a disability modification is not vested when it remains subject to a preserved challenge pursued by a presently aggrieved claimant." View "Dana Holding Corp. v. WCAB (Smuck)" on Justia Law

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On July 3, 2017, a jury convicted Appellee George Torsilieri of one count each of aggravated indecent assault, and indecent assault. The trial court deferred sentencing until completion of a presentence investigative report and a sexually violent predator assessment by the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board (“SOAB”). While sentencing was pending, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Commonwealth v. Muniz, 164 A.3d 1189 (Pa. 2017), holding that the registration and notification provisions of the then-applicable SORNA were punitive. A majority of the Court consequently concluded that the punitive provisions violated the constitutional protections of Pennsylvania’s ex post facto clause when applied retroactively to sexual offenders who were convicted prior to December 20, 2012, the effective date of SORNA. In September 2017, the SOAB concluded that Appellee did not meet the criteria for designation as a sexually violent predator (“SVP”). Between the SOAB’s determination and Appellee’s sentencing, the Superior Court declared a different aspect of SORNA unconstitutional. After review, the Supreme Court vacated that portion of the trial court's order declaring the registration requirements of SORNA unconstitutional, and remanded for further proceedings: "Unfortunately, the procedural posture of this case prevents tidy resolution of the matter by this Court. While Appellee presented a colorable argument that the General Assembly’s factual presumptions have been undermined by recent scientific studies, we are unable to affirm the trial court’s several conclusions finding Revised Subchapter H unconstitutional." View "Pennsylvania v. Torsilieri" on Justia Law

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In a discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in its application of Pennsylvania law to find that L.B., a Colorado resident, was foreclosed from challenging the validity of his consent to permit the adoption of his minor children under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, but not the requirements of the corresponding Colorado statute. After review, the Court concluded the superior court did not err, and affirmed the termination of L.B.'s parental rights to his children. View "In Re: J.W.B. & R.D.B." on Justia Law

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In a discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in holding the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) did not preclude a wrongfully terminated employee from filing a court action for retaliatory discharge under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law when the plaintiff reported discriminatory conduct made unlawful by the PHRA, but was not herself the subject of the underlying discrimination. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in so holding, and therefore affirmed. View "Harrison v. Health Network Lab, et al." on Justia Law

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In March of 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) filed a Right-to-Know Law (“RTKL”) request with the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) seeking disclosure of PSP’s “complete, un-redacted AR 6-9 regulation, which established policies and procedures for PSP personnel when using social media monitoring software.” The PSP provided the ACLU with “a heavily-redacted nine-page document entitled ‘AR 6-9 Real-Time Open-Source-Based Investigation and Research’” (hereinafter, “the Policy”). On April 3, 2017, ACLU filed an appeal and brief with the Office of Open Records ("OOR"), asserting that PSP had not provided a sufficient basis for its invocation of the public safety exception. After an in camera review, OOR characterized the Policy as “describ[ing] best practices, authorization procedures, purposes and limitations for PSP Troopers when using internet resources— including, but not limited to, sites commonly described as ‘social media’ sites—in a professional capacity.” OOR characterized PSP as contending that “the disclosure of the record would be reasonably likely to threaten public safety because knowledge of the restrictions and techniques under which PSP Troopers work could permit third parties to more easily evade PSP’s online efforts and hinder PSP’s attempts to investigate criminal matters or perform background checks.” The Commonwealth Court overturned OOR's "reasoned decision", but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court, holding only that the lower court did not conduct an "equally careful inquiry" as OOR: "The Commonwealth Court unnecessarily denied itself the opportunity to conduct the fact-finding that the RTKL asks of it. But because the Commonwealth Court is the ultimate finder of fact under the RTKL, it would be inappropriate for us to step into its place. On remand, the court at a minimum should compare the Affidavit to the provisions of the unredacted Policy that the Affidavit describes. In keeping with its authority under the RTKL, the court also retains discretion to further develop the record." Judgment was vacated and the matter remanded to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings. View "ACLU of PA v. PA State Police" on Justia Law