Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics
by
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reviewed a case involving Kevin Dowling, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Dowling was initially charged with robbery, indecent assault, and attempted rape of Jennifer Myers, who identified him as her assailant. Two days before his trial, Myers was found dead in her art gallery. Dowling was subsequently charged with her murder. At trial, the prosecution argued that Dowling killed Myers to prevent her from testifying against him. The prosecution presented evidence including a video of Dowling’s fabricated alibi, a letter in which he confessed to attacking Myers, and testimony from several witnesses. Dowling was convicted and sentenced to death.Dowling later filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate the accuracy of a receipt from a store where a witness claimed to have seen him on the day of the murder. He also claimed that the prosecution violated his due process rights by not disclosing cash register journals from the store, which would have shown that the time on the receipt was correct. The PCRA court granted Dowling a new trial, but the Commonwealth appealed.The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the PCRA court's decision, concluding that Dowling failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of his trial would have been different had his counsel conducted further investigation or had the prosecution disclosed the register journals. The court also found that the false testimony of a police officer about the time on the receipt could not have affected the judgment of the jury, given the substantial independent evidence incriminating Dowling in Myers’ murder. View "Commonwealth v. Dowling" on Justia Law

by
The case involves a legal malpractice claim filed by minors N.W.M. and E.M., through their parents, against their former guardian ad litem (GAL), Patrice Langenbach, and her employer, the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The minors alleged that Langenbach acted negligently throughout her representation of them in a dependency matter and a corresponding termination of parental rights matter. The trial court dismissed all claims on grounds of immunity, asserting that Langenbach and the Defender Association were immune from suit under the doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity.On appeal, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's decision, holding that it was not within its authority to extend such immunity to GALs. The Superior Court maintained that it was not its role to make policy decisions or to expand existing legal doctrines, which it considered to be the prerogative of the Supreme Court or the General Assembly.The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the Superior Court's decision, concluding that GALs in juvenile dependency cases do not operate as an arm of the court and, therefore, are not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity. The court also clarified that the Superior Court is authorized to address novel legal issues, including those involving policy considerations. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion. View "N.W.M. v. Langenbach" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Lamarcus Eugene Drayton, who was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault against his nephew. The case proceeded to a jury trial, where Drayton was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to an aggregate term of 10 to 20 years' imprisonment, followed by five years' probation. Drayton appealed, asserting that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, and that the trial court erred when it excluded an alleged prior inconsistent statement by the victim. The Superior Court affirmed the judgment of sentence, and Drayton did not seek further review.Drayton later filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), asserting that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object when the court sent written instructions to the jury in violation of Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 646, and for failing to call three witnesses whom Drayton claimed would have testified that he had no opportunity to commit the sexual offenses. The PCRA court dismissed Drayton’s petition, and the Superior Court affirmed the dismissal.The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted review to consider whether trial counsel’s failure to object, when a trial court provides certain written instructions to the jury during deliberations in contravention of Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 646, constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel per se such that a PCRA petitioner need not establish prejudice in order to obtain relief. The court held that counsel’s failure to object to a Rule 646 violation is not one of the limited bases establishing ineffectiveness per se. Accordingly, the court affirmed the decision of the lower courts. View "Commonwealth v. Drayton" on Justia Law

by
Appellee Northside Leadership Conference (NLC), was a non-profit community development corporation that owned contiguous real property in Pittsburgh situated in a local neighborhood commercial zoning district designated for mixed use. In 2018, NLC applied for variances and special exceptions necessary to, inter alia, maintain the retail space, remodel and reopen the restaurant and permit the construction of six additional dwelling units. In 2018, a three-member panel of the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) conducted a hearing on NLC’s applications. Appellants Stephen Pascal and Chris Gates attended the hearing and objected to NLC’s applications. The ZBA ultimately granted the variance and special exception applications. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in approving a decision granting zoning relief despite: (1) the timing of the decision and (2) the alleged conflict of interest of one member of a three-member panel of the ZBA. We affirm in part and reverse in part, and remand for a new hearing before a different three-member panel of the ZBA.The Supreme Court found that the ZBA member ruling on the propriety of zoning applications brought by an organization on whose board she sat at all relevant times "so clearly and obviously endangered the appearance of neutrality that her recusal was required under well-settled due process principles that disallow a person to be the judge of his or her own case or to try a matter in which he or she has an interest in the outcome." The Supreme Court held the Commonwealth Court erred in rejecting appellants’ arguments on this issue and upholding the resulting tainted ZBA decision. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s order in part and reversed in part. The matter was remanded for a new hearing on the appellee NLC’s zoning applications before a newly constituted panel of the ZBA. View "Pascal, et al. v. City of Pgh ZBA, et al." on Justia Law

by
John Sivick, a Lehman Township Supervisor, wanted his son to have a job, and hoped to arranged a position for his son with the Township. After leaning on his fellow Supervisors, Sivick successfully found work for his son on a Township road crew. Following an ethics complaint and an investigation, the State Ethics Commission found Sivick violated the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act in several respects. As the lone sanction relative to this aspect of the ethics complaint, the Commission imposed $30,000 in restitution. Sivick filed a petition for review of the Commission’s adjudication and restitution order in the Commonwealth Court, challenging, inter alia, the Commission’s adjudication of a conflict of interest violation as well as the legal authority to impose restitution. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the Commission's decision, and Sivick appealed further to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court reversed on both points. The Court found the Commission’s adjudication identified three distinct but interrelated actions as violating Subsection 1103(a) without making clear whether each cited basis was sufficient by itself, or whether the violation was based upon aggregating the cited wrongdoing into one course of conduct. "This creates a degree of uncertainty that is only exacerbated by the Commission's imposition of a single sanction. It is exacerbated further still, now, by this Court’s determination that the lone sanction imposed lacked a statutory basis - and was, in a sense, an illegal sentence." The case was remanded for further proceedings, including, in the Commission's discretion, the entry of a new adjudication, and if appropriate, the imposition of any sanction available under the Act. View "Sivick v. State Ethics Commission" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Sara Ladd, a New Jersey resident, owned two vacation properties on Arrowhead Lake in the Pocono Mountains. Ladd started renting one of these properties in 2009 and the other in 2013 to supplement her income after being laid off from her job as a digital marketer. Eventually, some of her Arrowhead Lake neighbors learned of her success and asked her to manage rental of their own properties. Ladd considered “short-term” vacation rentals to be rentals for fewer than thirty days, and limited her services to such transactions only. Ladd acted as an “independent contractor” for her “clients” and entered into written agreements with them related to her services. In January 2017, the Commonwealth’s Bureau of Occupational and Professional Affairs (the Bureau), charged with overseeing the Commission’s enforcement of Real Estate Licensing and Registration Act (RELRA), called Ladd to inform her she had been reported for the “unlicensed practice of real estate.” Ladd reviewed RELRA and concluded her short-term vacation property management services were covered by the statute, and she would have to obtain a real estate broker license to continue operating her business. As Ladd was sixty-one years old and unwilling to meet RELRA’s licensing requirements, she shuttered PMVP to avoid the civil and criminal sanctions described in the statute. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the Commonwealth Court's holding that the RELA's broker licensing requirements satisfied the heightened rational basis test articulated in Gambone v. Commonwealth, 101 A.2d 634 (Pa. 1954), and thus do not violate Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution when applied to a self-described “short-term vacation property manager.” The Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth Court erred in so holding, and therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ladd et al v. Real Estate Commission, et al." on Justia Law

by
Appellees Augustus Feleccia and Justin Resch were student athletes who played football at Lackawanna Junior College (Lackawanna), a nonprofit junior college. Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program. The Athletic Director, Kim Mecca, had to fill two trainer vacancies in the summer of 2009. She received applications from Kaitlin Coyne, and Alexis Bonisese. At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. In 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice, engaging in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” In this discretionary appeal arising from the dismissal of appellees’ personal injury claims on summary judgment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in: (1) finding a duty of care; and (2) holding a pre-injury waiver signed by student athletes injured while playing football was not enforceable against claims of negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness. After careful review, the Court affirmed the superior court’s order only to the extent it reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on the claims of gross negligence and recklessness. The Case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, et al." on Justia Law

by
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

by
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

by
Appellant SCF Consulting, LLC lodged a civil complaint against Appellee, the law firm of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, in the common pleas court. Appellant averred that it had maintained a longstanding oral consulting agreement with the law firm, which the firm purportedly breached in 2014. According to Appellant, the arrangement was for the solicitation of institutional investors to participate in securities class actions, and remuneration was to be in the form of a two-and-one-half to five-percent share of the firm’s annual profits on matters “originated” by Appellant’s principal or on which he provided substantial work. Appellant claimed the consulting agreement qualified as an express exception to the anti-fee-splitting rule for an employee “compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.” Alternatively, Appellant argued Appellee’s attempt to invoke public policy as a shield was an “audacious defense” which, if credited, would perversely reward the law firm by allowing it to profit from its own unethical conduct. The county court agreed with Appellee’s position concerning both the nonapplicability of the exception to Rule 5.4(a)’s prohibition and the unenforceability of the alleged agreement. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the ultimate outcome of this case might turn on factual findings concerning Appellant’s culpability, or the degree thereof, relative to the alleged ethical violation. The Court held only that the contract cause of action was not per se barred by the purported infraction on Appellee’s part and, accordingly, the county court’s bright-line approach to the unenforceability of the alleged consulting agreement should not have been sustained. View "SCF Consulting, LLC. v. Barrack Rodos & Bacine" on Justia Law