Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Government Contracts
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
United Blower, et al. v Lycoming Water & Sewer
In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the Commonwealth Court properly calculated the “cost” of steel products under the Steel Products Procurement Act (“Steel Act” or “the Act”), which required that “75% of the cost of the articles, materials and supplies [of a steel product] have been mined, produced or manufactured” in the United States. G. M. McCrossin, Inc. (“McCrossin”), a contracting and construction management firm, served as the general contractor for the Lycoming County Water and Sewer Authority (“Authority”) on a project known as the Montoursville Regional Sewer System Waste Water Treatment Plan, Phase I Upgrade (“Project”). In July 2011, McCrossin entered into an agreement with the Authority to supply eight air blower assemblies, which move air from one area to another inside the waste treatment facility. United Blower, Inc. (“UBI”), became a subcontractor on the Project. UBI was to supply the eight blowers required by the original specifications and was to replace the three digestive blowers as required by a change order. UBI prepared a submittal for the blowers which McCrossin in turn submitted to the Authority’s Project engineer, Brinjac Engineering (“Brinjac”). As part of the submittal, McCrossin provided Brinjac and the Authority with a form, which verified that 75% of the cost of the blowers was attributable to articles, materials, and supplies (“AMSs”) that were mined, produced, or manufactured in the United States. The total amount McCrossin paid UBI for the blower assemblies and digestive blowers was $239,800. The amount paid by the Authority to McCrossin for these items was $243,505. Authority employees began to question whether McCrossin and UBI provided products that complied with the Steel Act. The Supreme Court held the Commonwealth Court improperly calculated the cost of the steel products at issue, thereby reversing and remanding for further proceedings. View "United Blower, et al. v Lycoming Water & Sewer" on Justia Law
U.S. Venture Inc. v. Dep of Comm & Econo Dev
U.S. Venture, Inc. (“Venture”) appealed a Commonwealth Court decision affirming the determination of the Pennsylvania Board of Claims (“Board”) that its dispute with the Commonwealth involving two grant agreements was not within the subject matter jurisdiction of the Board and that its claim was barred by sovereign immunity. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that any ambiguity within the relevant statutory provisions had to be resolved in favor of preserving sovereign immunity. Alternatively, the Court found these written grant agreements were in fact “grants,” which were not subject to the limited waiver of sovereign immunity. View "U.S. Venture Inc. v. Dep of Comm & Econo Dev" on Justia Law
Seda-Cog Joint Rail Auth v. Carload Express et al
Appellant SEDA-COG Joint Rail Authority (the “JRA”) was a joint authority formed pursuant to the MAA, governed by a sixteen member Board, with each of the eight member counties appointing two members. In addition to the MAA, the Board’s operations were governed by the JRA’s bylaws and a code of conduct. Appellee Susquehanna Union Railroad Company (“SURC”) was a third-party rail line operator. The JRA began the process to award a new operating agreement. At an October 2014 Board meeting, the JRA’s counsel announced because the Board had sixteen members, a nine-vote majority was required for the Board to act. Carload Express received twenty-four points, SURC received twenty-three, and Northern Plains Railroad received thirteen. A roll call vote was taken on the motion to award the contract to Carload and, of the ten voting Board members, seven voted in favor and three against. When certain Board members questioned the nine vote requirement for action, the Board voted unanimously to table the decision to award the operating agreement to Carload pending further review of the JRA’s bylaws and the applicable law. After the meeting, Carload submitted its position to the JRA, arguing that it had been awarded the operating agreement based upon the seven-to-three vote. The JRA responded by filing an action requesting a declaration upholding its use of the nine vote requirement. The Supreme Court granted discretionary appeal to determine whether Section 5610(e) of the Pennsylvania Municipality Authorities Act's use of the phrase “members present” abrogated the common law rule that a simple majority (a majority vote of the voting members who make up the quorum of a municipal authority) carried a vote. Because the Court concluded that it did not, it affirmed the Commonwealth Court. View "Seda-Cog Joint Rail Auth v. Carload Express et al" on Justia Law
Millcreek Twp SD v. Millcreek Twp ESPA
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
A. Scott Enterprises v. City of Allentown
Appellant City of Allentown (City) contracted with appellee A. Scott Enterprises, Inc. (ASE), to construct a new public road. After arsenic-contaminated soil was discovered at the worksite, the City suspended work on the project. Following testing, it was determined construction could resume if precautions were taken. Accordingly, the City instructed ASE to obtain revised permits and proceed with the project. However, the existing contract did not include terms regarding the potential for contaminated soil, despite the fact the City was aware there might be contamination prior to entering into the contract, and ASE declined to proceed, explaining it would incur substantial additional costs due to the contaminated soil. The parties made several attempts to reach an agreement in which ASE would continue the construction, but to no avail. Consequently, ASE sued the City to recover its losses on the project, alleged breach of contract, and sought compensation under theories of quantum meruit and unjust enrichment, as well as interest and a statutory penalty and fee award for violations of the prompt pay provisions of the Procurement Code. After a trial, a jury found the City breached its contract with ASE and also withheld payments in bad faith. In this discretionary appeal, the issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether an award of a statutory penalty and attorney fees under the prompt payment provisions of the Commonwealth’s Procurement Code was mandatory upon a finding of bad faith, irrespective of the statute’s permissive phrasing. The Court held such an award was not mandatory, and therefore reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "A. Scott Enterprises v. City of Allentown" on Justia Law
Clipper Pipe v. Ohio Casualty Ins.
In 2010, the United States Department of the Navy entered into an agreement with Contracting Systems, Inc. II ("CSI"), per which CSI served as the general contractor for the construction of an addition to, and renovations of, the Navy/Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in the Lehigh Valley. CSI, in turn, subcontracted with Appellee, Clipper Pipe & Service, Inc. for the performance of mechanical and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning work. Clipper filed suit against CSI and its surety, the Ohio Casualty Insurance Company (collectively "Appellants"), in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asserting that CSI had failed to pay approximately $150,000 to Clipper, per the terms of their agreement. Among other claims, Clipper advanced one under the Contractor and Subcontractor Payment Act (CASPA). Appellants moved for summary judgment, arguing that CASPA did not apply to public works projects, because a governmental entity does not qualify as an "owner" under the statutory definition, as such an entity is neither a "person" nor an "other association." The federal district court denied relief on Appellants' motion. Among other aspects of its holding, the court followed "Scandale Associated Builders & Eng'rs, Ltd. v. Bell" which held that a governmental entity may be an "owner" under CASPA, since the statutory definition of "person" does not exclude the federal government, and the purpose of CASPA is to protect contracting parties. Clipper prevailed at the subsequent jury trial, and the district court awarded interest, penalties, and attorney fees. Appellants appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted certification from the Third Circuit to determine whether a CASPA applied to the public works project in this case. After review, the Supreme Court concluded that CASPA did not apply to a construction project where the owner was a governmental entity. View "Clipper Pipe v. Ohio Casualty Ins." on Justia Law
Patton v. Worthington Associates
In this case, the trial and intermediate courts determined that a general contractor was not a statutory employer relative to an employee of its subcontractor. The issue before the Supreme Court centered on the tension between such rulings and the Supreme Court’s longstanding jurisprudence that conventional subcontract scenarios serve as paradigm instances in which the statutory-employment concept applies. Appellant Worthington Associates, Inc., was hired as the general contractor for an addition to a Levittown church. Worthington, in turn, entered into a standard-form subcontract with Patton Construction, Inc., of which Appellee Earl Patton was the sole shareholder and an employee, to perform carpentry. While working at the construction site, Mr. Patton fell and sustained injuries to his back. Subsequently, the Pattons commenced a civil action against Worthington contending that the company failed to maintain safe conditions at the jobsite. Worthington moved for summary judgment on the basis that it was Mr. Patton’s statutory employer and, accordingly, was immune from suit. After the motion was denied, trial proceeded during which Worthington reasserted its claim to immunity in unsuccessful motions for a nonsuit and a directed verdict. "Having set up an errant dichotomy for the jurors, the [trial] court proceeded to instruct them concerning the differences between independent contractors and employees at common law. In doing so, the trial court compounded the underlying conceptual difficulties it had engendered, because [the Supreme] Court has long held that, for the salient purposes under Sections 203 and 302(b) of the WCA, the term 'independent contractor' carries a narrower meaning than it does at common law." The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Pattons in the amount of $1.5 million in the aggregate. Post-trial motions were denied, and Worthington appealed. A Superior Court panel affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that Mr. Patton’s relationship with the owner here was undeniably a derivative one, arising per a conventional subcontract with a general contractor (Worthington). "[U]nder longstanding precedent, neither Patton Construction, Inc., nor Mr. Patton was an 'independent contractor' relative to Worthington." View "Patton v. Worthington Associates" on Justia Law
Scientific Games Int’l v. GTech Corp.
In an interlocutory appeal, the issue before the Supreme Court in this case concerned the "contours" of the Board of Claims' exclusive jurisdiction pertaining to procurement litigation against state agencies. Specifically, the Court was asked to determine whether such jurisdiction foreclosed original-jurisdiction proceedings in Commonwealth Court, challenging an Department of General Services' (DGS) cancellation of a request for proposals and request for declaratory and injunctive relief. The matter arose from a 2010 DGS request for proposals for the design, development, implementation, and maintenance of a computer control system to monitor slot machines at gaming venues across the Commonwealth. The plan was to replace an existing system which had been provided by Intervenor-Appellant, GTECH Corporation. GTECH and Appellee Scientific Games International, Inc. (SGI), each submitted proposals, and DGS selected SGI for the award and proceeded with contract negotiations. GTECH was informed that the contract had been awarded to SGI and submitted a protest. Two months later, DGS’s Deputy Secretary for Administration issued a final determination denying GTECH’s protest in material part, with prejudice. GTECH appealed the determination and requested, among other things, that the request for proposals be cancelled. Subsequently, DGS announced that it was canceling the request for proposals and sent a letter to SGI indicating "with little elaboration" that the cancelation was in the best interests of the Commonwealth. Subsequently, SGI commenced an action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Departments of Revenue and General Services in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction and petitioned for a preliminary injunction. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that contractors, bidders, and offerors have limited recourse and remedies: "[r]elative to controversies in matters arising from procurement contracts with Commonwealth agencies, the Board of Claims retains exclusive jurisdiction (subject to all jurisdictional prerequisites), which is not to be supplanted by a court of law through an exercise of original jurisdiction. As to challenges to cancellations of solicitations asserted under Section 521 of the Procurement Code, the Legislature did not implement any waiver of sovereign immunity and afforded no remedy to aggrieved bidders and offerors which have not yet entered into an executed contract with a Commonwealth agency." View "Scientific Games Int'l v. GTech Corp." on Justia Law
Kistler v. State Ethics Comm’n
The State Ethics Commission (Commission) appealed from an order of the Commonwealth Court that reversed the Commission's findings that Appellee Kenneth Kistler had violated two provisions of the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act (Act). Appellee was a member of the Carbon-Lehigh Intermediate Unit's (CLIU) board of directors from 1998 to 2002. As chairman of the building committee, Appellee was charged with pursuing the board's interests in various construction projects. Appellee also owned two building supply businesses. In late 1999, the board explored the possibility of constructing a garage in which to house its buses. The project's architect contacted Appellee as possible supplier for the project. Subsequently, Appellee resigned from his position with CLIU as a possible conflict-of-interest. At a board meeting, the solicitor for the CLIU opined that Appellee could "properly participate" in construction of the garage, but that he should abstain from any votes relating to that project. More projects were planned, and Appellee's businesses were again considered as suppliers. By this time, Appellee had withdrawn completely from participation with the CLIU's building committee. In 2004, the Commission notified Appellee that he was being investigated for possible violations of the Ethics Act. The Commission thereafter concluded that Appellee unintentionally violated the Act three times. The Commonwealth Court reversed the Commission’s decision. In its interpretation of the Ethics Act, the court found no evidence that Appellee's participation in the building committee's discussions lead to the committee's choosing his private businesses for its building projects. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the Commonwealth Court correctly interpreted the Ethics Act and affirmed its decision. View "Kistler v. State Ethics Comm'n" on Justia Law