Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law

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Appellant Kevin Bundy appealed pro se the deduction of funds from his prisoner account to satisfy financial obligations imposed as part of his criminal sentences. He contends, primarily, that he was constitutionally entitled to predeprivation notice and a hearing before such deductions began. Several of Appellant’s averments focused on the alleged impropriety of making deductions from gifts from family and friends. Others claim an entitlement to an ability-to-pay hearing, which, under prevailing Pennsylvania law as established by the Commonwealth Court, would only be implicated in relation to Act 84 deductions if there had been a “material change of circumstances” - such as a threat of additional confinement or increased conditions of supervision as a result of unpaid financial obligations. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Appellant’s first theory relating to gifted funds. Still, construing Appellant’s pro se averments with some leniency, the Court found he has alleged that, due to his indigence, the deductions have adversely affected his ability to litigate his PCRA petition. The Court found this allegation “resonant” because the change-in-circumstances prerequisite, as developed by the Commonwealth Court, was grounded on the premise that the prisoner can obtain meaningful merits review of the financial aspects of his sentence through direct appeal or post-conviction proceedings. If (as asserted) that opportunity was substantially encumbered by the Department of Corrections’ Act 84 deductions, an issue arises whether the “George/Ingram” rule should be extended to encompass such a circumstance. “[T]he law does not say with certainty that no relief is available. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court should not have sustained Appellees’ demurrer.” The order of the Commonwealth Court was reversed and the matter was remanded to that court for further proceedings. View "Bundy v. Wetzel et al" on Justia Law

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Dr. Susan Kegerise sought reinstatement as superintendent of the Susquehanna Township School District, as well as back pay and benefits. In January 2010, Kegerise was appointed superintendent. In 2013, the District’s Board of Directors extended Kegerise’s contract for a three-year term after agreeing, at Kegerise’s request, to include a resignation provision in her employment contract. Kegerise alleged this resignation clause was necessary to protect her interests in light of several Board members’ inappropriate behavior. Kegerise further alleged that, this clause notwithstanding, and in an effort to force her resignation, several Board members persisted in hostile actions including, inter alia, physical intimidation and verbal abuse, even after the contract was executed. In 2014, Kegerise informed the Board that she was receiving medical care and would be unable to return to work until April 21, 2014. While Kegerise was on medical leave, the Board received several letters from Kegerise’s counsel asserting that Kegerise had been constructively discharged. The Board responded by affirming that Kegerise remained the Superintendent of Schools, and that “[h]er time away from the District since that day has been recorded as sick leave derived from Dr. Kegerise’s pre-existing sick leave accumulation.” On April 17, 2014, Kegerise filed a complaint at the United States District Court, alleging, inter alia, that the Board had constructively discharged her. Kegerise asserted that, “although no formal termination has taken place, [she] cannot perform the job duties of Superintendent,” due to the Board’s behavior toward her. Kegerise sought damages in excess of six million dollars, including compensatory and economic damages “for loss of contractual salary and other emoluments of employment” and consequential damages for “damage to professional reputation and loss of future salary as an educational administrator.” The trial court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Kegerise had intended to resign when she filed her federal complaint, after which, it ordered the Board to reinstate Kegerise to her position with back pay and benefits. The Board appealed to the Commonwealth Court; the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of mandamus. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, found Kegerise did not demonstrate to a clear legal right to reinstatement. Accordingly, the orders reinstating her as superintendent with back pay and benefits was reversed. View "Kegerise v. Delgrande, et al," on Justia Law

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Appellee EQT Production Company (“EQT”) brought this declaratory action when it became exposed to the civil penalties under the Clean Streams Law in 2012 on account of leaks from an impoundment used to contain impaired water flowing back from hydraulic fracture gas wells. According to the complaint, much of the penalty exposure asserted by the regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP” or the “Department”), was premised on a “continuing violation” theory predicated on passive migration of contaminants from soil into water. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was tasked with determining the scope of those civil penalties. The Court determined that the mere presence of a contaminant in a water of the Commonwealth or a part thereof does not establish a violation of Section 301, 307, or 401 of the Clean Streams Law, since movement of a contaminant into water is a predicate to violations. This statement pertaining to the governing legal standard is distinct from whether and to what extent presence may serve as evidence of movement. The Department’s water-to-water theory of serial violations was rejected, and the Court emphasized nothing in this opinion should be read to approve or discount the Department’s soil-to-water theory. View "EQT Production Co v. Dept. of Env. Prot." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) appealed directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court a decision by the Commonwealth Court entering a $3.2 million verdict in favor of plaintiff-appellee Ralph Bailets after a bench trial of his claims arising under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law. PTC presented a question of first impression in Pennsylvania: whether non-economic damages for items such as embarrassment, humiliation, loss of reputation and mental anguish were available to plaintiffs in actions brought under the Law. Additionally, if non-economic damages are authorized under the Law, PTC asked the Supreme Court to determine whether the verdict amount was excessive in this case. After review, the Court concluded non-economic damages were available to successful plaintiffs under the Law and the trial court did not err or abuse its discretion in entering a verdict amount of $1.6 million for non-economic damages. Accordingly, the judgment was affirmed. View "Bailets v. Pa. Turnpike Commission" on Justia Law

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Bruce Edwards, Joseph Sarkis and Joseph Kovel (collectively, “Claimants”) were Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) officers and members of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association (“PSTA”). The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (“Commonwealth”) and PSTA were parties to a collective bargaining agreement, which expired on June 30, 2008. During negotiations for a successor agreement, the Commonwealth and PSTA reached an impasse regarding, inter alia, union officer leave. An Act 111 interest arbitration panel was convened, and it issued an award on December 24, 2008 (“December Award”) that included, in relevant part, compensation for officers on leave while working on union duties. The Office of Administration (“OA”) and PSP (collectively, “Appellants”) appealed the December Award to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that the arbitration award violated the creditable leave provision found in section 5302(b)(2) of the Retirement Code, 71 Pa.C.S. section 5302(b)(2), as, in their view, that section obligated the Commonwealth to pay troopers on leave only the compensation she or he would receive as if in full-time active duty. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on whether compensation paid at higher amounts to those employees on leave had to be considered when computing that employee’s retirement benefit under the Retirement Code. To that end, the Court had to decide whether Kirsch v. Pub. Sch. Emp.’ Ret. Bd., 985 A.2d 671 (Pa. 2009), in which the Court decided the same issue under the companion Public School Employees Retirement Code, 24 Pa.C.S. sections 8101–9102 (“PSERC”), also applied here. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the relevant statutory provisions of the Retirement Code and PSERC differed significantly and thus compelled a contrary result. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court. View "Office of Admin. v. State Employees' Retirement Bd." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine whether the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) was liable for injuries caused by negligently and dangerously designed guardrails erected on Commonwealth real estate. Specifically, the Court found the issue reduced to whether the Commonwealth owed a duty of care when PennDOT installed a guardrail alleged to be dangerous. Pursuant to the plain language of the Sovereign Immunity Act, 42 Pa.C.S. sections 8521-8528, the Court found the Pennsylvania General Assembly waived PennDOT’s immunity as a bar to damages caused by dangerous guardrails affixed to Commonwealth real estate. Dean v. Dep’t of Transp., 751 A.2d 1130 (Pa. 2000) did not control under the facts presented here. The Court reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Cagey v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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The employer, Allegheny County, was ordered to pay $14,750.00 in attorney’s fees under Section 440 of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act after the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (“WCAB”) determined that the County unreasonably contested its liability under the Act. Though the County sought supersedeas of that order, arguing that the finding of liability was in error, supersedeas was denied. Thus, the County complied with the order and paid the awarded fee to the employee’s counsel. Upon reaching the merits of the County’s appeal, however, the Commonwealth Court reversed, concluding that the County not only had a reasonable basis for its contest, but a prevailing one, and that the employee was no longer entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Thereafter, the County filed a separate petition before a Workers’ Compensation Judge (“WCJ”) in which it sought reimbursement of the erroneously awarded attorney’s fees from the employee’s counsel. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this matter to consider whether a court could order an employee’s attorney to disgorge erroneously awarded, but already paid, unreasonable contest attorney’s fees pursuant to Section 440, when the substantive basis for the award was later overturned on appeal. The Supreme Court found that the General Assembly, in enacting the Workers’ Compensation Act, did not provide any mechanism by which employers could recoup erroneously awarded counsel fees, once paid. The General Assembly contemplated that when a merits appeal is undertaken, a court may grant supersedeas of an order awarding attorney’s fees. Because such a supersedeas was requested and denied in this case, the Court held that the County may not recoup the already paid attorney’s fees from the employee’s counsel. The Court vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order and reinstated the order of the WCAB, which affirmed the denial of the County’s reimbursement petition. View "County of Allegheny v. WCAB (Parker)" on Justia Law

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Pursuant to the regulations that implement The Unfair Insurance Practices Act (“Act 205”), an insured can appeal to the Insurance Commissioner (“Commissioner”) of Appellee Pennsylvania Insurance Department (“Department”) when an insurer decides to cancel or not renew the insured’s homeowners’ insurance policy. This matter went before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court regarding whether, in the context of such an appeal, an insurer was collaterally estopped from litigating issues that were previously discussed in an investigative report that Consumer Services supplied in an earlier and separate appeal involving the same parties, when the Commissioner never entered a final order in the earlier appeal. The Supreme Court held that, for purposes of the doctrine of collateral estoppel, an investigative report does not constitute a final adjudication on the merits of any issue. Accordingly, an insurer is not collaterally estopped from litigating issues in the scenario described here. View "Skotnicki v. Insurance Department" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, we review the trial court’s determination that 75 Pa.C.S. 1611(e) violated Pennsylvania’s constitutional right to due process and the federal and Pennsylvania constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2013, a Pennsylvania State Police informant asked Appellee Lawrence Shoul, who held a CDL, to retrieve marijuana from one of Appellee’s co-workers and deliver it to the informant. Appellee obliged, using a motor vehicle to do so, whereupon he was arrested and charged with two counts of felony manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, and ultimately convicted of the same. Thereafter, PennDOT notified Appellee that, pursuant to Section 1611(e), he was disqualified from holding a CDL for life. Appellee appealed his disqualification to the trial court, which found that Section 1611(e) violated Pennsylvania’s constitutional right to substantive due process and the federal and Pennsylvania constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment. Preliminarily, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that Section 1611(e) was not rationally related, at least as a matter of Pennsylvania constitutional jurisprudence, to the protection of highway safety. Furthermore, the Court found merit in the trial court’s view that Section 1611(e)’s severity, relative to Section 1611’s other sanctions for conduct plainly more dangerous to highway safety, undermined the notion that it was rationally related to that purpose. Furthermore, the Court agreed that Section 1611(e)’s imposition of a lifetime disqualification undermined its rational relationship to promoting highway safety. However, the Court agreed with PennDOT that the trial court overlooked the fact that Section 1611(e) served the legitimate governmental purpose of deterring drug activity. The Supreme Court: reversed the trial court’s order insofar as it held that Section 1611(e) violated the Pennsylvania constitutional right to substantive due process; vacated the trial court’s order insofar as it held that Section 1611(e) violated the federal and state constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment; and remanded this case back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Shoul v. Bureau of Driver Licensing" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on whether access to public information available pursuant to section 614 of the Administrative Code of 1929, 71 P.S. 234, was governed by the Right-to-Know Law (“RTKL”). On January 15, 2014, then-Treasurer Robert McCord received a letter from Appellees, Pennsylvanians for Union Reform (“PFUR”), demanding production of a list of names. PFUR’s letter stated that “this is not a request pursuant to the [RTKL],” but that instead, “[t]his is a request for the public information which is mandated to be available from your office under Section 614 of the Administrative Code of 1929 (“List of Employees to be Furnished to Certain State Officers”).” The Treasurer replied that he considered PFUR’s demand to be a request under the RTKL and would proceed accordingly. PFUR objected to application of the RTKL, and the Treasurer filed a petition for review in the nature of an action for declaratory and injunctive relief in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction. The Treasurer alleged that the List contained information that he believed exempt from public disclosure under the RTKL and the Pennsylvania Web Accountability and Transparency Act (“PennWATCH Act”). The Supreme Court concluded the RTKL governed the method of access to section 614 information, but that the exceptions to disclosure under the RTKL, 65 P.S. 37.708, did not apply to permit redactions from otherwise publicly available information. “Before disclosing any section 614 information, however, the State Treasurer must perform the balancing test set forth in Pa. State Educ. Ass'n v. Commonwealth , Dep't of Cmty. & Econ. Dev., 148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016) (“PSEA”), to ensure that disclosures of personal information do not violate any individual’s rights of informational privacy under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.” View "PA Treasurer v. Union Reform" on Justia Law