Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

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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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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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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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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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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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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review in this case centered on the question of whether a municipality, in addressing a natural gas extraction company’s conditional use application for the construction and operation of a well site, could consider as evidence the testimony of residents of another municipality regarding the impacts to their health, quality of life, and property which they attribute to a similar facility constructed and operated by the same company in their municipality. After careful review, the Supreme Court held such evidence could be received and considered by a municipality in deciding whether to approve a conditional use application, and, thus, vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order, and remanded this matter to that court, with instructions to remand this matter to the trial court for further consideration. View "EQT Production v. Boro of Jefferson Hills" on Justia Law

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The longstanding dispute between UPMC; UPE, a/k/a Highmark Health and Highmark, Inc. (collectively, “Highmark”); and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Office of the Attorney General (“OAG”) is again before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This time, the issue centered on the parties’ rights and obligations under a pair of Consent Decrees that, since 2014, governed the relationship between UPMC and Highmark with regard to the provision and financing of certain healthcare services to their respective insurance subscribers. The Consent Decrees were scheduled to terminate on June 30, 2019. Following the Supreme Court's decision in "Shapiro I," on February 7, 2019, OAG filed a four-count petition at Commonwealth Court to Modify Consent Decrees (“Petition”), thus commencing the underlying litigation. OAG argued the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that Shapiro I controlled this case, and in so doing, misapplied the applicable principles of contract law. Highmark argued the Commonwealth Court erred in imposing a “materiality” limitation upon the Modification Provision, observing that nothing therein precluded modification of “unambiguous” and “material” terms of the Consent Decrees, as the Supreme Court characterized the termination date in Shapiro I. UPMC counters that OAG’s proposed use of the Modification Provision is contrary to the parties’ intent, in that the intent of the Consent Decrees, UPMC contends, was to establish a five-year transition period for UPMC and Highmark to wind down their contractual relationships, and thereby to minimize disturbance to the health care industry and to avoid sudden disruption of health care consumers’ expectations. The Supreme Court agreed with OAG and Highmark that the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding this case was controlled by Shapiro I. Further, the Court determined OAG and Highmark have set forth a plausible construction of the Modification Provision. The Court remanded this matter back to the Commonwealth Court to interpret the contested provision, and to reconsider the question of extension of the Consent Decrees. View "Pennsylvania v. UPMC, et al." on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from four separate, yet substantively similar, lawsuits filed by the county recorders in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Berks Counties, Pennsylvania, and their respective Counties (collectively, the Recorders). The Recorders sued appellees, MERSCORP, Inc., its wholly-owned subsidiary, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS), and several financial institutions who are members of MERS (collectively, MERSCORP). The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the Commonwealth Court correctly determined that 21 P.S. 351, “Failure to record conveyance,” did not create a mandatory duty to record all mortgages and mortgage assignments in a county office for the recorder of deeds. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district court’s decision and held Section 351 did not create a mandatory duty to record all land conveyances. Relying on the Third Circuit’s decision, MERSCORP filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer to the Recorders’ complaints at state court, seeking dismissal on the basis that Section 351 did not provide a duty to record, and the Recorders did not have authority to enforce Section 351 in any event. The court overruled the preliminary objections, and denied MERSCORP’s request to certify its interlocutory order for an immediate appeal. MERSCORP then filed a petition for review in the Commonwealth Court; a divided Commonwealth Court reversed. The majority agreed with the Third Circuit’s conclusion in the Federal Action, specifically ruling “Section 351 does not issue a blanket command that all conveyances must be recorded; it states that a conveyance ‘shall be recorded’ in the appropriate place, or else the party risks losing his interest in the property to a bona fide purchaser.” The majority observed the plain language of Section 351 did not specify which party to a transaction must record a conveyance, nor did it state when recording must take place. The majority also recognized Pennsylvania courts have consistently interpreted Section 351 and other provisions of Title 21 as intended to protect subsequent mortgages and purchasers, and that the failure to record inherently provides a limited consequence — the loss of a priority interest. The majority found further support for its conclusion in precedent recognizing as valid even unrecorded interests in land. The majority noted the Recorders have a ministerial duty to the public to record and safeguard records presented to them for recording, but that duty does not confer standing to file actions to protect the public from “inaccurate” records in the MERS(r) system. The Recorders appealed, but finding no reversible error with the Commonwealth Court's judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "MERSCORP, et al v. Delaware Co., et al." on Justia Law