Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified a question of law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Plaintiffs William DeForte and Evan Townsend were employed as police officers with the Borough of Worthington (the “Borough”). Neither officer was salaried or received benefits. Instead, they were paid hourly wages and, moreover, were simultaneously employed by other police forces. The Borough’s police force consisted of four part-time officers, including Plaintiffs. On November 5, 2012, the Borough terminated Plaintiffs’ employment without affording any process. Plaintiffs brought separate actions (which were consolidated) against the Borough at the federal district court. Plaintiffs asserted, inter alia, that the Borough Code or the Tenure Act conferred a constitutionally-protected property interest in their continued employment, and the lack of any process associated with their dismissal violated their federal due process rights. They requested relief under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Borough moved for summary judgment. In ruling on the motion, the district court considered whether Plaintiffs were entitled to civil-service protections in connection with their dismissal under either the Police Tenure Act, or the Borough Code, The Supreme Court, answering the two-part question forwarded by the Third Circuit: (1) the civil service protections embodied in the Borough Code and the Tenure Act were broadly in pari materia insofar as they were intended to govern all borough police forces; and (2) when calculating the size of a borough police force in any given case, the same test should be used. More particularly, the “normal working hours” criterion contained in the Borough Code should be employed to determine how many members a borough police force has for purposes of deciding whether the Tenure Act’s two-officer maximum or the Borough Code’s three-officer minimum was implicated. View "Deforte v. Boro of Worthington" on Justia Law

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In this case, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the Commonwealth Court disregarded the law when it vacated a grievance arbitration award based on its independent interpretation of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). Millcreek Township Educational Support Personnel Association (the “Association”) and Millcreek Township School District (the “District”) were parties to a CBA that became effective on July 1, 2011, and was set to expire on June 30, 2016. Negotiations for a successor CBA began January 26, 2016 when the Association offered its initial proposal to the District. Approximately one month later, the District presented a counter proposal in which it sought, among other items, to eliminate a no subcontracting provision. The Association rejected this proposal. On March 29, 2016, with successor CBA negotiations ongoing between the Association and the District, the District issued a request for proposals (“RFP”) seeking quotes from prospective bidders for the provision of custodial labor services. On April 7, 2016, upon learning that the District had issued an RFP to subcontract the bargaining unit’s work, the Association filed a grievance with the District. Pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decisions under the Public Employee Relations Act (“PERA”), a reviewing court had to apply the highly deferential two-prong “essence test” to grievance arbitration awards: (1) the court had to decide whether the issue was encompassed by the CBA; and (2) the court had to uphold the arbitrator’s award if the arbitrator’s interpretation could rationally be derived from the CBA. Subject to a narrow exception for awards that violate a dominant public policy, proper application of the essence test prohibits a court from vacating an arbitrator’s award unless “the award indisputably and genuinely is without foundation in, or fails to logically flow from, the [CBA].” The Supreme Court had "no trouble" concluding that the award in this case drew its essence from the CBA and because no public policy would be violated by its enforcement, it reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court. View "Millcreek Twp SD v. Millcreek Twp ESPA" on Justia Law

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In the early morning hours of July 4, 2008, Appellant Wendell Jones' former girlfriend, Sonsiarae Watts, and her boyfriend, Dahl Palm, were shot to death inside Watts’ home. After a grand jury investigation, Appellant was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, as well as burglary and a firearms offense. At his trial, Appellant testified he was at home alone watching television or sleeping on his couch when the crimes occurred. His counsel did not request an alibi instruction and the court did not give one. The jury convicted Appellant on all charges. The court imposed consecutive life sentences for the murders, a consecutive term of incarceration on the burglary charge, and no further penalty for the firearms violation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal in this post-conviction matter to consider whether Appellant was entitled to a new trial, because counsel failed to request that the jury receive an alibi instruction or object to the trial court’s failure to give one. After review, the Supreme Court held Appellant did not demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that there was a reasonable probability the outcome of the proceeding would have been different had an alibi instruction been given to the jury. Thus, counsel’s failure to request such an instruction or to object to the lack of one did not undermine the Court's confidence in the jury’s verdicts. That being the case, Appellant was not entitled to a new trial. View "Pennsylvania v. Jones" on Justia Law

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In 2015 the Pittsburgh City Council passed and Mayor William Peduto (collectively, “the City”) signed the Paid Sick Days Act (“PSDA”) and the Safe and Secure Buildings Act (“SSBA”). Plaintiff-appellees (collectively, “Challengers”) filed suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, challenging the PSDA’s and SSBA’s validity on the basis that the HRC precluded the City from imposing the burdens those ordinances entailed upon local employers. The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas considered the challenges to both laws, and found, in separate decisions issued within four days of each other, that both ordinances were ultra vires as impermissible business regulations pursuant to Section 2962(f) of the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law (“the HRC”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to consider whether these ordinances ran afoul of the qualified statutory preclusion of local regulations that burden business. The Court held that the PSDA did not exceed those limitations, but that the SSBA did. View "Pa. Rstrnt & Lodging v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law

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Appellee Jerome King sought post-conviction relief, claiming, inter alia, that he was entitled to a new trial because his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. In connection with this petition, Appellee submitted to the PCRA court a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from privately interviewing his trial counsel, who allegedly refused to cooperate with Appellee’s attempt to prepare for PCRA litigation and, instead, was collaborating with the Commonwealth. The PCRA court entered an order granting the motion, and the Superior Court affirmed that order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider whether the lower courts correctly concluded that the Commonwealth should be prevented from privately interviewing a PCRA petitioner’s trial counsel under the circumstances presented in this matter. After review, the Supreme Court held that, given the circumstances relevant to this appeal, the PCRA court did not abuse its discretion by barring the Commonwealth from privately interviewing trial counsel. Consequently, it affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. King" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine whether Subsection 508(4)(i) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), which protected pending land development applications filed with a municipality’s governing body, extended to zoning applications submitted to its zoning hearing board that were: (1) related to the land development application; and (2) filed with the zoning hearing board during the pendency of the land development application and after an adverse zoning change. The Court concluded that Subsection 508(4)(i)’s protection did indeed extend to zoning applications under these circumstances. View "In Re: ZHB of Cheltenham Twp 12-16-15 Decision" on Justia Law

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In July 2016, Appellant Markease Cousins was arrested on an active bench warrant. A search incident to arrest revealed that Appellant had in his possession 1.75 grams of cocaine. As a result, Appellant was charged with, and convicted of, possession of a controlled substance. As the conviction constituted a violation of Appellant’s probation for a prior conviction for conspiracy to commit burglary, the trial court sentenced Appellant to a term of one to five years incarceration for violating his probation. With regard to Appellant’s new conviction for possession of a controlled substance, the trial court imposed an additional sentence of one to three years incarceration based on the pre-sentence report which indicated Appellant had previously been convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. Specifically, the trial court applied the enhanced sentencing provision of 35 P.S. section 780-113(b). In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court’s application of the enhanced sentencing provision in 35 P.S. sections 780-101 et seq. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court’s decision was correct, and, thus, affirmed its order. View "Pennsylvania v. Cousins" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on whether the Business Privilege and Mercantile Tax (“BPT”) imposed by Appellee the City of York (“City”), had to be paid by Appellant, S & H Transport, Inc. (“S & H”), a freight broker, on the total yearly amount of money S & H receives from its customers for arranging shipping of commercial goods with freight carriers on their behalf, where, after deducting its commission, S & H remits the remaining money to the freight carriers as payment of their shipping fees. After careful review, the Supreme Court found that the amount of money S & H collected and passed on to freight carriers for their fees was excluded from taxation under the City’s BPT. View "S & H Transport v. City of York" on Justia Law

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A jury awarded Appellant Elliot Menkowitz, M.D. $1,000,000 in compensatory damages in his defamation suit against Appellees, Peerless Publications, Inc. (“Peerless”) and Eric Engquist. Dr. Menkowitz began his employment as an orthopedic surgeon at Pottstown Memorial Medical Center (“PMMC”) in the early 1970s. At PMMC, Dr. Menkowitz was accused of verbally abusing colleagues and staff and engaging in other inappropriate behavior in front of patients. In April 1996, Dr. Menkowitz was informed that due to his inappropriate conduct, PMMC’s Medical Executive Committee and the Medical Committee of the Board had voted to suspend him or allow him to take a voluntary leave to address his behavioral problems. Dr. Menkowitz then disclosed that he had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and suggested that he might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In light of this information, PMMC did not suspend Dr. Menkowitz or require him to take a leave of absence, but issued a written warning explaining that should Dr. Menkowitz’s misbehavior continue, PMMC would summarily suspend all of his clinical privileges. Less than a year later, based upon continuing behavioral issues, PMMC suspended Dr. Menkowitz for six months. The suspension did not last for the full six months, however, as PMMC lifted it approximately one month later when Dr. Menkowitz filed suit against PMMC in federal court for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In April 1997, the Mercury, a local Pottstown newspaper published by Peerless, ran a front-page article about Dr. Menkowitz regarding his suspension. After reading the article, Dr. Menkowitz "fell into a severe depression. Dr. Menkowitz’s treatment for this depression included multiple medications that caused fasciculations (tremors) in his arms and hands, impairing Dr. Menkowitz’s ability to perform surgery." The Superior Court found that the trial court erred in failing to enter notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") in Appellees’ favor and vacated the award of compensatory damages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider whether in so doing, the Superior Court failed to exercise appropriate deference to the fact-finder when reviewing a JNOV ruling, as explained in Joseph v. Scranton Times, L.P., 129 A.3d 404 (Pa. 2015) (“Joseph III”). The Supreme Court determined the Superior Court failed to do so, vacated its judgment and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. View "Menkowitz. v. Peerless Publications" on Justia Law

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Following his arrest on suspicion of DUI in May 2015, appellant Thomas Bell was transported to the Lycoming County DUI Center. There, a detective read the PennDOT DL-26 form to appellant and he refused to submit to a blood test. Appellant was subsequently charged with DUI — general impairment, and a summary traffic offense for failing to use required lighting. Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss, arguing he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test and thus evidence of his refusal should be suppressed and the DUI charge dismissed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether Section 1547(e) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. §1547(e), which expressly allowed the Commonwealth to introduce evidence at trial that a defendant charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) refused to submit to chemical testing, violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Supreme Court concluded the evidentiary consequence authorized by Section 1547(e) was constitutional, and affirmed the order of the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Bell" on Justia Law