Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
Bindas. v. PennDOT
In 2015, the Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) began constructing a diamond interchange and installing a drainage system on property abutting Interstate 70 (“I-70”) in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The property’s owner, Appellant Donald Bindas, petitioned for the appointment of a board of viewers, seeking compensation for this encumbrance upon his land. PennDOT asserted that its predecessor, the Department of Highways (“DOH”), had secured a highway easement for the land in question in 1958. Both the trial court and the Commonwealth Court agreed, dismissing Bindas’ suit. Upon its review of the statutory authority that PennDOT invoked, as well as the record, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that DOH’s failure to comply with the requirements of 36 P.S. § 670-210 rendered that easement invalid. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order, and remanded with the instruction that PennDOT’s preliminary objections be overruled. View "Bindas. v. PennDOT" on Justia Law
PA State Police v. ACLU of PA
The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Commonwealth Court abused its discretion when, sua sponte, it issued a remand to the Office of Open Records (“OOR”) for additional fact-finding after that court already had determined that the agency subject to the record request failed to meet its burden of proving that an exception to disclosure requirements applied. To this the Court concluded that such an abuse of discretion occurred, and accordingly judgment was reversed. The Court remanded this matter to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings. View "PA State Police v. ACLU of PA" on Justia Law
In the Int. of: K.T.
Child K.T. was born June 2016. Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) first became involved with her when she tested positive for cocaine at birth; CYF had been involved with Mother since 2009 regarding an older child. Prompted by continued housing instability, a report of intimate partner violence between Mother and Child’s biological father, and Mother’s failure to follow through with service referrals, CYF sought a finding of dependency in early 2017. For more than two years, while Child remained in a foster home, and prior to CYF filing for termination, Mother was inconsistent with participation in CYF’s recommended services. The orphan court ultimately concluded “terminating the parental rights of Mother does not serve the needs and welfare of the child.” A majority of the Court of Appeals determined the record supported the trial court’s “evaluation of the bond that clearly exists between Mother and Child, and its determination that this bond was worth preserving[,]” and the court was thus within its discretion to deny termination. In this discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the court that denied CYF’s petition for involuntary termination of a mother’s parental rights gave “primary consideration to the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of the child” as required by 23 Pa.C.S. §2511(b). More specifically, the Court considered whether the court evaluating the parent-child bond must determine whether the bond was necessary and beneficial to the child, and severing the bond would cause the child to experience extreme emotional consequences, rather than a mere “adverse” impact. Upon review, the Supreme Court found error and thus (1) vacated the appellate court's orders and (2) remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "In the Int. of: K.T." on Justia Law
Brown v. Oil City, et al.
By 2011, due to weathering and aging, the condition of the concrete stairs leading to the entrance of the Oil City Library (the “library”) had significantly declined. Oil City contracted with Appellants Harold Best and Struxures, LLC, to develop plans for the reconstruction of the stairs and to oversee the implementation of those design plans. The actual reconstruction work was performed by Appellant Fred Burns, Inc., pursuant to a contract with Oil City (appellants collectively referred to as “Contractors”). Contractors finished performing installation work on the stairs by the end of 2011. In early 2012, Oil City began to receive reports about imperfections in the concrete surface, which also began to degrade. In September 2013, Oil City informed Burns of what it considered to be its defective workmanship in creating the dangerous condition of the stairs. Between February 28, 2012 and November 23, 2015, the condition of the stairs continued to worsen; however, neither Oil City nor Contractors made any efforts to repair the stairs, or to warn the public about their dangerous condition. In 2015, Appellee David Brown (“Brown”) and his wife Kathryn exited the library and began to walk down the concrete stairs. While doing so, Kathryn tripped on one of the deteriorated sections, which caused her to fall and strike her head, suffering a traumatic head injury. Tragically, this injury claimed her life six days later. Brown, in his individual capacity and as the executor of his wife’s estate, commenced a wrongful death suit, asserting negligence claims against Oil City, as owner of the library, as well as Contractors who performed the work on the stairs pursuant to their contract with Oil City. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether Section 385 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts imposed liability on a contractor to a third party whenever the contractor, during the course of his work for a possessor of land, creates a dangerous condition on the land that injures the third party, even though, at the time of the injury, the contractor was no longer in possession of the land, and the possessor was aware of the dangerous condition. To this, the Court concluded, as did the Commonwealth Court below, that a contractor may be subjected to liability under Section 385 in such circumstances. View "Brown v. Oil City, et al." on Justia Law
Javitz v. Luzerne Co., et al.
On August 4, 2014, Appellant Donna Javitz became the Director of Human Resources for Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Her union-related responsibilities included participating in investigatory meetings for disciplinary matters involving union employees. In March 2015, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (“AFSCME” or “Union”) filed an unfair labor practice charge (“ULP Charge”) with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board against Luzerne County, raising allegations concerning Javitz’s conduct in two investigatory meetings. Paula Schnelly, an administrative assistant in the appellate division of the Luzerne County’s District Attorney’s Office and Union president, attended the investigatory meetings referenced in the ULP Charge as a representative for the Union members. Attached to the ULP Charge were documents in support of the allegations, among them were what appeared to Javitz to be transcripts of the investigatory meetings at issue. The highly detailed nature of the documents, as well as Javitz’s recollection that Schnelly did not take notes during investigatory meetings, gave rise to a suspicion on Javitz’s part that Schnelly recorded the investigatory meeting in violation of the Wiretap Act. Javitz took her concern to the Director of Administrative Services, David Parsnik. Together they took the matter to the Luzerne County District Attorney. The District Attorney stated that she would refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office to investigate, as Schnelly’s employment in the District Attorney’s office created a conflict of interest. Javitz contended, she learned the County Manager, Robert Lawton, instructed the District Attorney to drop the matter. In October 2015, the Union and County settled the ULP Charge. A week later, Javitz was terminated from her position. Javitz filed suit in federal district court, naming Luzerne County, Lawton, and Parsnik as defendants. Her complaint raised federal and state claims, including a claim under the Whistleblower Law. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court related to the standard that a plaintiff must meet in order to establish a prima facie claim under Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower Law and whether the Commonwealth Court erred in its application of that standard. The Court concluded that the Commonwealth Court did so err. Its order was vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Javitz v. Luzerne Co., et al." on Justia Law
Marcellus Shale Coalition v. Dept. of Environmental Protection, et al.
This case was one of many lawsuits concerning Act 13 of 2012, which amended Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act. Act 13 included the grant of authority by the General Assembly to the Agencies to promulgate regulations for unconventional gas wells. In October 2016, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (the “MSC”) filed a Petition seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, raising seven counts, only one of which was at issue in this appeal. That count pertained to portions of the regulations set forth at Sections 78a.1 and 78a.15. Each challenged regulatory provision interacted to some degree with Section 3215 of the Oil and Gas Act of 2012, titled “Well location restrictions.” In this appeal as of right, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to pass upon the breadth of the legislative rulemaking authority given to the Department of Environmental Protection (the “Department”) and the Environmental Quality Board (the “Board”) (collectively, the “Agencies”) by the General Assembly in the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act of 1984. The Agencies contended the Commonwealth Court erroneously concluded that they exceeded their authority and consequently struck down certain regulations designed to aid the Agencies in information gathering attendant to the issuance of permits for new unconventional gas wells. The Supreme Court found the General Assembly intended to give the Agencies the leeway to promulgate the challenged regulations and that those regulations were reasonable. The Court therefore reversed the Commonwealth Court. View "Marcellus Shale Coalition v. Dept. of Environmental Protection, et al." on Justia Law
Vellon v. Dept of Transportation
In March 2016, Appellant Jose Vellon was arrested for DUI of alcohol pursuant to Subsection 3802(a)(1) of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802(a)(1) (general impairment). A violation of this statute constituted an “ungraded misdemeanor.” Vellon was accepted into the Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (“ARD”) Program. Several months later, police charged Vellon with another DUI. As a result of the Second DUI, the trial court entered an order removing Vellon from ARD. Vellon pleaded guilty to the First and Second DUIs, and in October 2017, he was sentenced on both DUI violations. Appellee Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (“PennDOT”) informed Vellon that it would be suspending his driving privileges as a collateral consequence of his DUI convictions pursuant to Section 3804 of the Vehicle Code. Vellon appealed only his license suspension for the First DUI. In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that, in drafting Section 3806, the General Assembly intended to mandate that, when a defendant is sentenced for two driving-under- the-influence (“DUI”) offenses on the same day, both offenses had be considered prior offenses to each other with each warranting civil recidivist collateral consequences, despite the facts that the defendant committed the DUI violations at different points in time and had never previously been convicted of DUI. To this, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Commonwealth Court and reversed that court’s order. View "Vellon v. Dept of Transportation" on Justia Law
County of Fulton, et al. v. Sec. of Com.
The Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth decertified certain voting equipment that Fulton County acquired from Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. (“Dominion”) in 2019 and used in the 2020 general election. The Secretary decertified the voting equipment after learning that, following the 2020 election, Fulton County had allowed Wake Technology Services, Inc. (“Wake TSI”), to perform a probing inspection of that equipment as well as the software and data contained therein. The Secretary maintained that Wake TSI’s inspection had compromised the integrity of the equipment. Fulton County and the other named Petitioner-Appellees petitioned in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction to challenge the Secretary’s decertification authority generally and as applied in this case. During the pleading stage, the Secretary learned that Fulton County intended to allow another entity, Envoy Sage, LLC, to inspect the allegedly compromised equipment. The Secretary sought a protective order from the Commonwealth Court barring that inspection and any other third-party inspection during the litigation. The court denied relief. The Secretary appealed that ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which entered a temporary order on January 27, 2022, to prevent the inspection and to preserve the status quo during the Court's review of the Secretary’s appeal. Months later—and with no public consideration, official proceedings, or notice to the courts or other parties to this litigation—the County allowed yet another party, Speckin Forensics, LLC to inspect the voting equipment and electronic evidence at issue in this litigation. Upon learning of this alleged violation of the temporary order, the Secretary filed an “Application for an Order Holding [the County] in Contempt and Imposing Sanctions.” The Supreme Court found Fulton County willfully violated the Supreme Court's order. The Court found Fulton County and its various attorneys engaged in a "sustained, deliberate pattern of dilatory, obdurate, and vexatious conduct and have acted in bad faith throughout these sanction proceedings." Taken as a whole, that behavior prompted the Court to sanction both the County and the County Attorney. View "County of Fulton, et al. v. Sec. of Com." on Justia Law
Shrom, et al v PA Underground Storage Tank
This appeal concerned whether Dr. Timothy Shrom and Debra Shrom were eligible under the Pennsylvania Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act (Act) for payment from the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund (Fund) for costs they incurred in remediating contamination caused by fuel releases from underground storage tanks (USTs or tanks) located on their property. The Fund concluded, and the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Board (Board) ultimately agreed, that the Shroms were ineligible for such payment because the subject USTs were not registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as required by Section 503 of the Act and the registration fees were not paid at the time of the fuel releases that gave rise to the Shroms’ claim for remediation costs. The Commonwealth Court reversed the Board’s decision on appeal, concluding that: (1) the Shroms were eligible to receive payment from the Fund for remediation costs under the Act; (2) the Board’s holding relative to the timing of the payment of the Section 503 registration fees constituted an unlawful de facto regulation; and (3) contrary to the Board’s finding, payment of the Shroms’ claim did not appear to pose any imminent risk to the Fund’s solvency. Finding no error in the Commonwealth Court’s decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. View "Shrom, et al v PA Underground Storage Tank" on Justia Law
Synthes USA HQ v. Pennsylvania
This case centered upon how Appellee Synthes USA HQ, Inc. should apportion its income between Pennsylvania and other states in order to calculate its Pennsylvania corporate net income tax. The two issues presented were: (1) does the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General (“OAG”) have the authority to represent the Commonwealth in this litigation, where it asserted an interpretation of the relevant tax provision contrary to the reading forwarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (“Department”); and (2) whether the allocation of a corporation's sales of services between Pennsylvania and other states for purposes of calculating the corporation’s income that was taxable in Pennsylvania. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth Attorneys Act permitted the OAG to take a position on behalf of the Commonwealth that was inconsistent with the position adopted by the Department, but the Court ultimately rejected the OAG’s reading of the relevant tax provision in favor of the interpretation presented by the Department. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court remanding this case to the Board of Finance and Revenue for calculation and issuance of a tax refund by the Department to Synthes for the 2011 tax year. View "Synthes USA HQ v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law