Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries
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
Pennsylvania v. Rosario
In 2015, Appellee Keith Rosario pleaded guilty to carrying a firearm without a license, delivering crack cocaine, and delivering marijuana. The trial court sentenced him to two and a half to five years’ imprisonment for the gun conviction, a consecutive term of five years’ probation for the crack cocaine offense, and one year of probation for the marijuana conviction to run concurrently with the five-year probation. In 2017, Rosario was paroled. Four months later while Rosario was still on parole for his gun conviction but before his probation sentences for his drug crimes began, he kidnapped a man and shot him in the back of the head. In connection with these new crimes, the Commonwealth charged him with attempted homicide and related offenses, and he was held for court. Based on the new charges against him, in 2018, the trial court revoked Rosario’s parole and probations in the present cases. Thereafter, in 2019, the trial court resentenced him to consecutive terms of the balance of his two and a half to five-year sentence for carrying a firearm without a license, five to ten years’ imprisonment for delivering crack cocaine, and five years’ probation for delivering marijuana. In 2020, however, the superior court vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded for resentencing. On remand, the trial court imposed the same consecutive sentences for the gun and crack cocaine convictions but increased the sentence for delivering marijuana to a consecutive term of two to five years’ imprisonment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider the legality of the practice of anticipatory revocation of probation, which involved the cancellation of a probation sentence before it begins. The Court held the plain language of the statute governing probation revocation prohibited this practice. View "Pennsylvania v. Rosario" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Koger
This case was not about probation; it was about parole. Purporting to rely on certain passages from Commonwealth v. Foster, 214 A.3d 1240 (Pa. 2019) and the statutes the Pennsylvania Supreme Court examined in that decision, the trial court held “a sentencing court may not delegate its statutorily pr[e]scribed duties” but must instead personally “communicate any conditions of probation or parole as a prerequisite to violating any such condition.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Commonwealth’s petition for allowance of appeal to consider whether the trial court improperly expanded Foster in this regard. As the Supreme Court concluded it did, judgment was reversed in part. "[T]here is no dispute the parole conditions appellee violated were imposed by the county probation office rather than the state Parole Board. ... there was nothing improper about that, and the Superior Court erred in concluding otherwise. We therefore reverse its decision in that respect and remand for further proceedings." View "Pennsylvania v. Koger" 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
Franks, et al. v. State Farm Mutual
Appellants Robert and Kelly Franks sought automobile insurance from Appellee, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company in 2013 for their two vehicles. Appellants included underinsured motorist coverage (“UIM”) in their policy but completed a form rejecting stacked UIM coverage in compliance with Section 1738(d)(2) of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”). Absent such waiver, stacked coverage would be the default. Appellants removed one of the original vehicles and added a third vehicle to the policy effective 2014, and again rejected stacked UIM coverage. They made another change to the policy in 2015, removing the other of the original insured vehicles with a different car. No additional form rejecting stacked UIM coverage was offered or sought to be completed on the occasion of the removal of the last vehicle, and the ongoing premiums paid by Appellants reflected the lower rate for non-stacked UIM overage on two vehicles. Robert was injured in an accident caused by the negligence of a third party. That party had insufficient liability coverage to cover Robert's injuries. Appellants initiated a claim for UIM benefits under their policy with State Farm, but the parties disagreed on the limit to their benefits. Appellants contended with the last change to the policy, there was no valid waiver of stacked UIM coverage, resulting in a default stacked coverage mandated by statute. The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review in this matter was whether the Superior Court erred as a matter of law by holding that removal of a vehicle from a multiple motor vehicle insurance policy, in which stacked coverage had previously been waived, did not require a renewed express waiver of stacked coverage pursuant to Section 1738(c). The Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court did not err and affirmed its judgment. View "Franks, et al. v. State Farm Mutual" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Rollins
In Commonwealth v. Eid, 249 A.3d 1030 (Pa. 2021), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found Section 1543(b)(1.1)(i) of the Vehicle Code unconstitutionally vague in contravention of state and federal due process principles because it failed to specify a maximum term of imprisonment. The Court granted allowance of appeal in this case to determine whether another subsection of that same statute, Section 1543(b)(1)(iii), was unconstitutional for similarly failing to specify a maximum term of imprisonment. The Court declined to find this provision unconstitutional and therefore affirmed the Superior Court’s order. View "Pennsylvania v. Rollins" on Justia Law