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Michael Easterday (“Decedent”) and Colleen Easterday (“Easterday”) married in 2004. Prior to marriage, Decedent worked for Federal Express and became a participant in a pension plan established by this former employer. He also purchased a $250,000 life insurance policy. Decedent designated Easterday the beneficiary of both during their marriage. The parties separated in 2013, and ultimately filed for divorce under section 3301(c) of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, which provided for a divorce by mutual consent of the parties. She and Decedent subsequently settled their economic claims in a property settlement agreement (“PSA”) executed December, 2013. Pertinent here, the PSA provided that the parties would each retain "100% of their respective stocks, pensions, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, deferred compensation plans, etc. and shall execute whatever documents necessary to effectuate this agreement." The issue this case presented was one of first impression for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, namely, the interplay between provisions of the Divorce Code, the Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code, and the Rules of Civil Procedure. An ancillary issue centered on whether ERISA preempted a state law claim to enforce a contractual waiver to receive pension benefits by a named beneficiary. It was determined Decedent’s affidavit of consent was executed more than thirty days prior to the date it was submitted for filing (and rejected). The Superior Court ruled that because the local Prothonotary rejected the filing of Decedent’s affidavit of consent due to a lack of compliance with Rule 1920.42(b)(2)’s thirty-day validity requirement, grounds for divorce had not been established in accordance with section 3323(g)(2) of the Divorce Code at the time of Decedent’s death. Because the Decedent’s affidavit of consent was not filed, section 6111.2 of the PEF Code did not invalidate Easterday’s designation as the beneficiary of Decedent’s life insurance policy. Furthermore, the Superior Court determined ERISA did not preempt the state law breach of contract claim to recover funds paid pursuant to an ERISA-qualified employee benefit plan. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court's judgment. View "In Re: Estate of Easterday" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether a police officer’s initial observations of a defendant at the scene of a crime, followed by a warrantless search of a cellular telephone left at the scene, which lead to the discovery of defendant’s identity, tainted the officer’s subsequent in-court identification of the defendant. Appellant Angel Santiago was pulled over by police for having a heavily tinted windshield in violation of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code. Appellant seemed nervous and avoided eye contact with the officer, who asked for Appellant’s license, registration, and insurance information. Appellant replied that he had no license. When the officer directed Appellant to turn off the vehicle, Appellant did not comply, and began to reach into the center console. The officer immediately reached through the window and grabbed Appellant’s arm to prevent him from retrieving anything from the console. Appellant accelerated the car with half of the officer’s body still inside it. The officer repeatedly requested Appellant to pull over as Appellant sped away. The officer released his grip on the driver, causing the officer to be thrown away from the vehicle and onto the road, and Appellant’s vehicle ran over the officer's right foot. The officer later required medical treatment for his injuries. At no time during the encounter did the officer learn the driver’s name or identity. Police would later retrieve a cell ground from the location of the original traffic stop, where they were able to open it (without warrant) to try to determine the phone's owner. Only two contacts were in the phone: Appellant's and "My Babe." An NCIC database search of Appellant's name lead to a picture of Appellant from a recent prison release. This photograph was shown to the injured officer from the traffic stop, who affirmatively identified the individual whom he pulled over. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the identification made as a result of a warrantless search of the contents of a cell phone rendered such identification tainted and inadmissible. However, a pre-search identification of a defendant could be admissible, if independent of the taint. The officer's out-of-court identification was suppressible. View "Pennsylvania v. Santiago" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review in this case came from a Superior Court judgment that affirmed the trial court’s order denying a motion to suppress images of child pornography discovered by a computer repair shop employee after Appellant Jon Shaffer took his laptop to the commercial establishment for repair and consented to the replacement of the laptop’s hard drive. The Superior Court held that the trial court did not err in denying suppression because Appellant abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in the computer files under the facts presented. The Supreme Court held that because the contraband images were discovered by a computer technician who was not acting as an agent of the government and because the police officer’s subsequent viewing of the contraband images did not exceed the scope of the computer technician’s search, the private search doctrine applies and Appellant’s constitutional privacy protections are not implicated. View "Pennsylvania v. Shaffer" on Justia Law

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In a medical negligence case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the admissibility of evidence regarding the risks and complications of a surgical procedure in a medical negligence case. Consistent with the Court's recent decision in Brady v. Urbas, 111 A.3d 1155 (Pa. 2015), the Court found that evidence of the risks and complications of a surgery may be admissible at trial. View "Mitchell. v. Shikora" on Justia Law

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George BouSamra, M.D., along with his colleague, Ehab Morcos, M.D., were members of Westmoreland County Cardiology (WCC), a private cardiology practice. BouSamra and Morcos were interventional cardiologists. Westmoreland Regional Hospital was operated by Excela Health (Excela). As of 2006, approximately 90% of the interventional cardiology procedures at Westmoreland Regional Hospital were performed by WCC. As a result, most of the income Excela realized from interventional cardiology procedures at Westmoreland Regional Hospital stemmed from WCC’s procedures. In 2007, Excela acquired Latrobe Cardiology (Latrobe). Although Latrobe was a cardiology practice, it did not employ interventional cardiologists. Instead, Latrobe referred its patients requiring interventional cardiac procedures to other cardiologist groups, including WCC. Because WCC and Latrobe competed for patients, some animosity existed between the practices. In February 2010, Robert Rogalski (Rogalski) was appointed CEO of Excela, at which point he became aware of the acrimonious relationship between WCC and Latrobe. Seeking to control the market for interventional cardiology in Westmoreland County, Rogalski began negotiating with WCC intending to bring WCC into Excela’s network. The negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful, and in April 2010, WCC rejected any further negotiations. In June 2010, Excela engaged Mercer Health & Benefits, LLC (Mercer) to review whether physicians at Westmoreland Regional Hospital, including BouSamra, were performing medically unnecessary stenting. The results of the study were critical of BouSamra’s work, and concluded that he had performed medically unnecessary interventional cardiology procedures. While Mercer was completing its peer review but prior to another peer review, Excela contracted with an outside public relations consultant to assist Excela in managing the anticipated publicity stemming from the results of the peer review studies. BouSamra initiated this action seeking damages for, among other things, defamation and interference with prospective and actual contractual relations. As the matter continued through the phases of litigation, the parties disagreed as to the scope of discoverable materials. The issue raised before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether Excela Health waived the attorney work product doctrine or the attorney-client privilege by forwarding an email from outside counsel to its public relations and crisis management consultant. The Court concluded the work product doctrine was not waived by disclosure unless the alleged work product was disclosed to an adversary or disclosed in a manner which significantly increased the likelihood an adversary or anticipated adversary would obtain it. This matter was remanded back to the trial court for fact finding and application of the newly articulated work product waiver analysis. View "BouSamra v. Excela Health" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case was whether provisions of the Pennsylvania Election Code prohibiting the process by which two or more political organizations place the same candidate on the ballot in a general election for the same office. In the April 26, 2016 primary election, Christopher Rabb secured the Democratic nomination for Representative of the General Assembly’s 200th Legislative District. A few months later, the Working Families Party circulated papers to nominate Rabb as its candidate for the same race. The Supreme Court determined appellants failed to establish the challenged anti-fusion provisions of the Election Code clearly and plainly violated the equal protection clause of the federal or state constitutions, therefore, the order of the Commonwealth Court was affirmed. View "Working Families Party v. Com." on Justia Law

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The issues this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on: (1) whether the penalty imposed against HIKO Energy, LLC (HIKO) was so grossly disproportionate as to violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions; (2) whether the penalty impermissibly punished HIKO for litigating; and (3) whether the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) abused its discretion in imposing a penalty which was not supported by substantial evidence. The Supreme Court concluded HIKO waived its constitutional challenge to the civil penalty in this case, the penalty was not imposed as a punishment against HIKO for opting to litigate its case, and that the PUC’s conclusions in support of imposing the penalty were supported by substantial evidence. View "HIKO Energy, Aplt. v. PA PUC" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Appellee City of Lebanon (the “City”) was considering creation of a business improvement district (a “BID”), a type of Neighborhood Improvement District (“NID”) to revitalize its downtown area. After a hearing, at which citizens voiced their comments, the City accepted a plan devised by City officials and hired consultants as final and sent another letter to property owners and lessees within the proposed BID, advising how to file an objection, or to vote against the establishment of the Lebanon BID. Appellant Edward Schock, the owner of a non-exempt property in the Lebanon BID, filed suit at the county court under the caption: “Complaint for Declaratory Judgment to Declare Bid Dead.” In the complaint, Appellant advanced the position that, under NIDA, “the objection threshold is 40% of the assessed parcels,” as opposed to forty percent of all parcels within the geographic boundaries of a BID. Given that, by his calculus, only the owners of 280 properties within the geographic boundaries of the BID were eligible to vote, Appellant concluded that the final plan had been vetoed by the 132 negative votes. The City filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer, contending that the term “affected property owners,” in Section 5(f)(2), unambiguously encompasses all of the owners of properties within the geographic boundaries of a BID, regardless of whether they will be subject to or exempt from monetary assessments. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found, as did the court of common pleas, there were substantial, competing policy considerations in the design of the voting scheme pertaining to the establishment of NIDs. “Ultimately, although we find the shifting terminology within the Act to be awkward and ambiguous, we conclude that the statute’s veto provisions pertaining to final NID plans concern only assessed property owners.” The order of the Commonwealth Court was reversed and the matter remanded for entry of declaratory judgment reflecting the Supreme Court’s opinion. View "Schock. v. City of Lebanon" on Justia Law

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At about 2:30 A.M. on June 28, 2014, via live surveillance camera footage of an Allentown convenience store, police officers saw appellant Michael Hicks inside the store with a firearm. It would later emerge appellant possessed a valid license to carry a concealed weapon. Officers were dispatched to the store, and before appellant could leave the parking lot, he was stopped. Hicks was not charged with any crime relating to the firearm, nor with any crime relating to the other patron, to whom Hicks “showed” the firearm. However, having discovered evidence of Hicks’ suspected intoxication and possession of marijuana, the police officers arrested Hicks and charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol (“DUI”) -high rate of alcohol (second offense), DUI - general impairment (second offense), possession of a small amount of marijuana, and disorderly conduct, graded as a third-degree misdemeanor. Hicks filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking suppression of the evidence and a writ of habeas corpus, the latter motion requesting dismissal of the disorderly conduct charge due to the absence of any evidence establishing the elements of that crime. The trial court denied appellant’s motion; he was convicted on one count of DUI, acquitted of the remaining charges. The Superior Court affirmed judgment of sentence, rejecting the argument that the immediate and forcible nature of appellant’s seizure amounted to a custodial arrest rather than an investigative detention. As for the existence of reasonable suspicion justifying that investigative detention, the Superior Court did not conclude that the purported “brandishing” established reasonable suspicion that a violent crime might be in progress, or that someone might be in imminent danger. After review, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances (even in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the facts did not support a finding of reasonable, articulable suspicion that appellant was engaged in any kind of criminal activity the morning he was seized. Judgment of sentence was vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Hicks" on Justia Law

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In May 2010, Appellant Jakeem Towles shot and killed Cornell Stewart, Jr. outside a former fire hall in Columbia, Pennsylvania, which had been converted into a local “fun center.” The center was hosting rap music performances, including a set of songs performed by the victim and another individual, John Wright. At a jury trial, Appellant was found guilty of first-degree murder, and the jurors returned a death sentence at the conclusion of the penalty phase of the trial. The judgment of sentence was sustained by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on direct appeal. Appellant sought post-conviction relief averring, inter alia, his trial counsel was ineffective for rendering allegedly unreasonable advice by: (1) encouraging Appellant to refrain from testifying at the guilt phase of his trial; and (2) for failing to call a forensic psychologist as a defense witness at the guilt phase to opine that Appellant’s intoxication and paranoid personality features played a substantial part in his actions. Finding no reversible error or constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Towles" on Justia Law