Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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This appeal arose from four separate, yet substantively similar, lawsuits filed by the county recorders in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Berks Counties, Pennsylvania, and their respective Counties (collectively, the Recorders). The Recorders sued appellees, MERSCORP, Inc., its wholly-owned subsidiary, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS), and several financial institutions who are members of MERS (collectively, MERSCORP). The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the Commonwealth Court correctly determined that 21 P.S. 351, “Failure to record conveyance,” did not create a mandatory duty to record all mortgages and mortgage assignments in a county office for the recorder of deeds. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district court’s decision and held Section 351 did not create a mandatory duty to record all land conveyances. Relying on the Third Circuit’s decision, MERSCORP filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer to the Recorders’ complaints at state court, seeking dismissal on the basis that Section 351 did not provide a duty to record, and the Recorders did not have authority to enforce Section 351 in any event. The court overruled the preliminary objections, and denied MERSCORP’s request to certify its interlocutory order for an immediate appeal. MERSCORP then filed a petition for review in the Commonwealth Court; a divided Commonwealth Court reversed. The majority agreed with the Third Circuit’s conclusion in the Federal Action, specifically ruling “Section 351 does not issue a blanket command that all conveyances must be recorded; it states that a conveyance ‘shall be recorded’ in the appropriate place, or else the party risks losing his interest in the property to a bona fide purchaser.” The majority observed the plain language of Section 351 did not specify which party to a transaction must record a conveyance, nor did it state when recording must take place. The majority also recognized Pennsylvania courts have consistently interpreted Section 351 and other provisions of Title 21 as intended to protect subsequent mortgages and purchasers, and that the failure to record inherently provides a limited consequence — the loss of a priority interest. The majority found further support for its conclusion in precedent recognizing as valid even unrecorded interests in land. The majority noted the Recorders have a ministerial duty to the public to record and safeguard records presented to them for recording, but that duty does not confer standing to file actions to protect the public from “inaccurate” records in the MERS(r) system. The Recorders appealed, but finding no reversible error with the Commonwealth Court's judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "MERSCORP, et al v. Delaware Co., et al." on Justia Law

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James and Beryl Wicker signed a mortgage agreement for their residence in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in favor of Countrywide Bank, FSB (Countrywide) in February 2008. The mortgage agreement indicated that Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS) would act as nominee for Countrywide and its successors and assigns and was designated as the mortgagee. In an assignment of mortgage recorded in November 2011, MERS, as nominee for Countrywide, assigned the mortgage to Bank of America. In May 2012, Bank of America filed a mortgage foreclosure action against the Wickers alleging that the Wickers defaulted on their mortgage as of September 1, 2010. It further averred that it had provided the Wickers with the statutorily required foreclosure notice on September 21, 2011. Bank of America then moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted in part and denied in part. In so doing, the trial court narrowed the issues for trial to determining whether Bank of America had provided proof of: (1) the required foreclosure notices; (2) the date of default; and (3) the amount of indebtedness. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to consider the application of Pennsylvania’s business records exception to the rule against hearsay, pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 803(6) and the Uniform Business Records as Evidence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. 6108. The parties agreed that then-current Pennsylvania precedent allowed a records custodian to authenticate documents even if the witness did not personally record the specific information in the documents. The parties disagreed, however, as to whether a records custodian could lay a foundation for documents incorporated into the files of the custodian’s employer when the information in the documents was recorded by a third party, a process which was allowed under the similar but not identical Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6), pursuant to the so-called adopted business records doctrine. The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court in concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the testimony of the records custodian and admitting the documents under the facts of this case. View "Bayview Loan v. Wicker" on Justia Law

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This appeal addressed the meaning and effect of section 5513 of Pennsylvania’s Probate Estates and Fiduciaries Code, which related to the appointment of emergency guardians. The Superior Court held that an emergency order for a guardianship of an estate automatically expired after thirty days. The parties did not challenge the vitality of the emergency guardianship in the trial court. Nor did either party raise any claim before the Superior Court regarding the termination of the guardianship order or the appropriate interpretation of the Termination Provisions. In addressing an issue actually raised on appeal, the Superior Court further held that an individual subject to emergency guardianship is not incapacitated and is not precluded from making decisions about his property even when his guardian has been ordered by the court to do so on his behalf. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined it was error for the Superior Court to consider and opine on the validity of the order at issue in the underlying case on the basis of the Termination Provisions. Moreover, the Court held that an individual under the protection of an emergency guardianship order has been determined to lack sufficient capacity to make certain decisions and that the extent of his decision-making capacity depends on the specific “powers, duties and liabilities” afforded to the guardian by court order. The Supreme Court therefore vacated the Superior Court’s decision and remanded the matter to that court for further proceedings. View "Gavin v. Loeffelbein" on Justia Law

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Appellees Steven and Mary Szabo, owned real property where they operate a hair salon and skin care business. The property abutted Route 19 and Old Washington Road, was improved with a parking lot and commercial structure. Appellant, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT or Department) developed a road expansion plan to connect Route 19 with Old Washington Road by means of an exit ramp that would run across a section of the Szabos land, identified in the declaration of taking as Parcel 5. The Department attempted to purchase the property from the Szabos; however, the parties could not come to an agreement. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether a failure to file preliminary objections to a declaration of taking resulted in waiver under Section 306 of the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (Code). After careful review, the Court held that the declaration did not establish the extent or effect of the taking. Accordingly, the failure to file preliminary objections within thirty days of service did not result in waiver of the right to assert ownership and seek just compensation, and therefore the Court affirmed the decision of the Commonwealth Court to remand the matter for an evidentiary hearing. View "Szabo v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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Kenneth Taggart appealed a superior court order affirming a trial court’s verdict on mortgage foreclosure in favor of Great Ajax Operating Partnership (“Great Ajax”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded Great Ajax or its predecessors failed to provide pre-foreclosure notice before initiating a second mortgage foreclosure action as required by the Loan Interest and Protection Law, 41 P.S. sections 101-605 (“Act 6”). In reaching this conclusion, the Court held the purposes of Act 6 were served by requiring each action in mortgage foreclosure to be preceded by a separate pre-foreclosure notice. A lender may not recycle a stale pre-foreclosure notice that it issued in connection with a prior complaint in mortgage foreclosure. Because Great Ajax failed to provide a separate pre-foreclosure notice before initiating the second action, the superior court's judgment was reversed. View "JP Morgan Chase Bank v. Taggart" on Justia Law

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This appeal required the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to determine whether a “household vehicle exclusion” contained in a motor vehicle insurance policy violated Section 1738 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”), 75 Pa.C.S. 1738, because the exclusion impermissibly acted as a de facto waiver of stacked uninsured and underinsured motorist (“UM” and “UIM,” respectively) coverages. In 2012, Appellant Brian Gallagher was riding his motorcycle when William Stouffer ran a stop sign in his pickup truck, colliding with Gallagher’s motorcycle, causing Gallagher to suffer severe injuries. At the time of the accident, Gallagher had two insurance policies with GEICO; one included $50,000 of UIM coverage, insured only Gallagher’s motorcycle; the second insured Gallagher’s two automobiles and provided for $100,000 of UIM coverage for each vehicle. Gallagher opted and paid for stacked UM and UIM coverage when purchasing both policies. Stouffer’s insurance coverage was insufficient to compensate Gallagher in full. Consequently, Gallagher filed claims with GEICO seeking stacked UIM benefits under both of his GEICO policies. GEICO paid Gallagher the $50,000 policy limits of UIM coverage available under the Motorcycle Policy, it denied his claim for stacked UIM benefits under the Automobile Policy. GEICO based its decision on a household vehicle exclusion found in an amendment to the Automobile Policy. The exclusion states as follows: “This coverage does not apply to bodily injury while occupying or from being struck by a vehicle owned or leased by you or a relative that is not insured for Underinsured Motorists Coverage under this policy.” According to Gallagher, by denying him stacked UIM coverage based upon the household vehicle exclusion, GEICO was depriving him of the stacked UIM coverage for which he paid. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the household vehicle exclusion violated the MVFRL, and vacated the Superior Court’s judgment, reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of GEICO, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Gallagher v. GEICO" on Justia Law

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This case involved questions of how the attorney-client privilege should apply in the context of derivative litigation. The nonprofit corporations involved in this matter were the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (“the Foundation”) and its subsidiary, the Landmarks Financial Corporation (“the Corporation”), which managed the Foundation’s endowment. Plaintiffs were five former members of the Boards of Trustees of the Foundation and the Corporation who alleged they were improperly and ineffectively removed from the Boards in an attempt to thwart their oversight of the Foundation’s president, whom they believed was engaging in actions that were improper and not in accord with the Foundation’s mission. The Foundation’s Board created a Governance Task Force to review various practices of the Foundation; the Task Force recommended that both Boards be reduced substantially in number. The Foundation Board approved this recommendation and removed all trustees then serving from both Boards; significantly smaller boards were elected and as a result of these consolidations, and Derivative Plaintiffs lost their seats on the Boards. In accord with standard procedures for bringing a derivative action adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Cuker v. Mikalauskas, 692 A.2d 1042 (Pa. 1997). The Supreme Court rejected the Commonwealth Court’s adoption of a qualified attorney-client privilege as set forth in Garner v. Wolfinbarger, 430 F.2d 1093 (5th Cir. 1970), which the Supreme Court viewed as inconsistent with prior Pennsylvania caselaw emphasizing predictability in the application of the attorney-client privilege. However, the Commonwealth Court’s decision not to apply the fiduciary or co-client exceptions to the attorney-client privilege under the facts of this case was affirmed. The matter was remanded for further al court and the Commonwealth Court and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Pgh History v. Ziegler" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether an exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied ― the real property exception to governmental immunity ― and, in particular, whether the absence of padding on a gym wall, into which a student ran during gym class, causing injury, fell within the exception. In 2012, then-nine-year-old Jarrett Brewington ran in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in Philadelphia. While Jarrett was running, he tripped and fell, causing him to propel into the wall at the end of the gym, hit and cut his head, and lose consciousness. No padding covered the gym wall, which was made of concrete. Jarrett was later diagnosed with a concussion, was absent from school for one to two months after the incident, and continued experiencing headaches and memory problems years later. In 2013, Jarrett’s mother, Syeta Brewington, brought an action against Walter G. Smith Elementary School and the School District of Philadelphia (collectively, the “School”), alleging Jarrett’s injuries occurred because of a defective and dangerous condition of the premises, namely, the concrete gym wall, and that the School was negligent in failing to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall. In response, the School filed, inter alia, a motion for summary judgment, raising the defense of governmental immunity, and claiming that the real property exception to governmental immunity under the Act did not apply. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the lack of padding of a gym wall could constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, and, thus, fell within the Act’s real estate exception. View "Brewington v. Phila. Sch. Dist." on Justia Law

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This appeal presented an issue of whether a workers’ compensation insurance carrier could bring a third-party action against an alleged tortfeasor on behalf of an injured employee to recoup the amount paid in workers’ compensation benefits where the employee did not independently sue the tortfeasor, did not join in the insurer’s action, and did not assign her cause of action to the insurer. In 2013, Chunli Chen was standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Rental Car when she was struck by a rental vehicle operated by Kafumba Kamara. When the accident occurred, Chen was in the course of her employment with Reliance Sourcing, Inc., which maintained workers’ compensation coverage through The Hartford Insurance Group (“Appellee” or “Insurer”). Insurer had paid $59,424.71 in medical and wage benefits to Chen pursuant to her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance policy. Chen did not seek to recover damages for her injuries by filing an action against Kamara and/or Thrifty Rental Car (collectively referred to herein as “Appellants” or “Tortfeasors”) and did not assign her cause of action against Tortfeasors to Insurer. In 2015, when the two-year statute of limitations was about to expire on Chen’s cause of action, Insurer sought to effectuate its subrogation right under Section 319 of the Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) by filing a praecipe for a writ of summons against Tortfeasors. “Reaffirming the well-settled proposition that the right of action against the tortfeasor remains in the injured employee,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that, unless the injured employee assigns her cause of action or voluntarily joins the litigation as a party plaintiff, the insurer may not enforce its statutory right to subrogation by filing an action directly against the tortfeasor. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and reinstated that of the trial court, which sustained the preliminary objections filed by the tortfeasor and dismissed the insurer’s complaint with prejudice. View "Hartford Ins. Grp. v. Kamara" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this matter to determine whether an employer has a legal duty to use reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information that the employer stores on an internet-accessible computer system. Barbara Dittman, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated (collectively, Employees), filed the operative class action complaint in this matter against UPMC d/b/a the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and UPMC McKeesport (collectively, UPMC), alleging that a data breach had occurred through which the personal and financial information, including names, birth dates, social security numbers, addresses, tax forms, and bank account information of all 62,000 UPMC employees and former employees was accessed and stolen from UPMC’s computer systems. Employees further alleged that the stolen data, which consisted of information UPMC required Employees to provide as a condition of their employment, was used to file fraudulent tax returns on behalf of the victimized Employees, resulting in actual damages. Employees asserted a negligence claim and breach of implied contract claim against UPMC. The Supreme Court held an employer has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information stored by the employer on an internet- accessible computer system. Furthermore, the Court held that, under Pennsylvania’s economic loss doctrine, recovery for purely pecuniary damages is permissible under a negligence theory provided that the plaintiff can establish the defendant’s breach of a legal duty arising under common law that is independent of any duty assumed pursuant to contract. As the Superior Court came to the opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court vacated its judgment. View "Dittman v. UPMC" on Justia Law