Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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Montour Township (Township) Pennsylvania has a zoning ordinance (Ordinance) under which the Township has been divided into different districts, including agricultural districts. The Ordinance permits several “Intensive Agriculture and Agricultural Support” uses, including “hog raising,” in agricultural districts by special exception. The Nutrient Management Act (Act), required certain agricultural operations to comply with various standards regarding the management of livestock manure, among other “nutrients.” At the heart of the Act is the mandate that certain agricultural operations adopt a “nutrient management plan” or “NMP.” The Act also contained a provision outlining the manner in which the Act, as well as the regulations and guidelines promulgated pursuant to it, preempt local regulation of nutrient management. Scott Sponenberg (Applicant) owned property used as a livestock and crop farm within an agricultural district in the Township. In April 2013, Applicant filed an application for a special exception with the Montour Township Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) based on his desire to build a swine nursery barn with under building concrete manure storage (i.e., a manure storage facility) on his property. Applicant’s planned use was not subject to the various requirements established under the Act, which applied to NMP operations. The ZHB initially granted Applicant’s special exception application subject to conditions. Following two appeals filed by various objectors, including Russell Berner, Donna Berner, Kendall Dobbins, Robert Clark, and Robert Webber (Objectors), the matter returned to the ZHB by way of order from the Commonwealth Court for the ZHB to render necessary findings regarding Applicant’s compliance with the Ordinance’s special exception requirements. In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether, and if so, to what extent, the Act preempted local regulation of nutrient management by agricultural operations that were not otherwise subject to the Act’s requirements. The Court held the Act preempted local regulation of agricultural operations not subject to the Act’s requirements to the extent that the local regulation was more stringent than, inconsistent with, or in conflict with those requirements. Because the Commonwealth Court reached a contrary result, the Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order. View "Berner,et al v. Montour ZHB" on Justia Law

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Betty and Curtis Shiflett sued Lehigh Valley Hospital and Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc. (collectively, the “Hospital”) for negligence in connection with injuries Betty suffered while in the hospital for knee surgery. The jury returned a verdict for the Shifletts, awarding them $2,391,620 in damages. The Superior Court ruled that one of the claims upon which the Shifletts prevailed at trial was time-barred and should not have been submitted to the jury. Finding that some portion of the jury’s damage award may have been based upon the time-barred claim, the intermediate appellate court remanded the case for a new trial on damages. After its review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court erred in this regard, as pursuant to the “general-verdict rule” adopted by Halper v. Jewish Family & Children’s Services, 963 A.2d 1282 (Pa. 2009), the Hospital waived any entitlement to a new trial on damages when it failed to request a special interrogatory on the verdict sheet that would have permitted the jury to allocate the damages awarded on each claim. View "Shiflett v. Lehigh Valley Health" on Justia Law

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Appellant, Joseph Petrick, contracted with a homeowner, Donna Sabia, to perform remodeling work. Sabia paid Appellant a deposit of $1,750.00 plus $300.00 to cover the cost of city permits. Appellant began some of the contracted work at which time Sabia paid an additional $1,750.00 to Appellant. That same day, Appellant and Sabia’s son, Carmen Fazio, who also resided in the home, entered into a second contract for Appellant to do some painting in the home. As consideration, Fazio purchased a $600.00 saw for Appellant. Appellant and Fazio entered into a third contract to install siding on the exterior of the home. Fazio paid Appellant $2,300.00 to purchase materials. Appellant did not finish the work; Appellant eventually advised Sabia and Fazio that he could not complete the jobs but would refund $4,950.00 within a week. Appellant never refunded any money or the saw, nor did he ever purchase the siding materials or obtain the permits from the city. Appellant filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In his petition, Appellant listed Sabia and Fazio as creditors. The bankruptcy court issued a discharge order in March 2016. In October 2015, a City of Scranton Police Detective filed a criminal complaint charging Appellant with theft by deception and deceptive business practices. After a bench trial, the court found Appellant guilty of theft by deception and not guilty of deceptive business practices. The court sentenced Appellant to a term of incarceration of three to eighteen months. Appellant was also ordered to pay $6,700.00 in restitution. Appellant filed a motion for reconsideration of his sentence, which the trial court denied. On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment of sentence. On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Appellant argued that the portion of his sentencing order requiring him to pay restitution was illegal because the debt was discharged in bankruptcy. Appellant argued that the Bankruptcy Code specified that the filing of a petition operated as an automatic stay of any action to recover a debt that preceded the filing. The Supreme Court found the mandatory restitution order served criminal justice goals, and were distinct from civil debt liability with respect to discharge in bankruptcy. “This distinction is unaffected by the temporal relationship between the proceedings in the bankruptcy court and the criminal prosecution. Additionally, it is unaffected by a creditor’s participation in the bankruptcy proceedings.” The Court determined there was no indication in this case the restitution award was improperly sought by the prosecutor or awarded by the sentencing court. Accordingly, it affirmed the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Petrick" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Rachel Dixon was driving a car owned by her boyfriend, Rene Oriental-Guillermo (“Policyholder”), when she was involved in an accident with a vehicle in which Priscila Jimenez was a passenger, and which was owned by Iris Velazquez, and operated by Alli Licona-Avila. At the time of the accident, Dixon resided with Policyholder, who had purchased a personal automobile insurance policy (“Policy”) for his vehicle through Safe Auto Insurance Company (“Safe Auto”). The Policy contained an unlisted resident driver exclusion (“URDE”), which excluded from coverage any individuals who lived with, but were not related to, the policyholder, and whom the policyholder did not specifically list as an additional driver on the insurance policy. Jimenez and her husband Luis (collectively, “Appellants”) filed a personal injury lawsuit against Dixon, Policyholder, and Licona-Avila. On May 13, 2015, Safe Auto filed a complaint against Dixon, Policyholder, and Appellants, seeking a declaratory judgment regarding the enforceability of the URDE with respect to Dixon. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Safe Auto, finding the URDE unambiguous, valid, and enforceable, and concluding that Safe Auto had no duty under the Policy to defend or indemnify Dixon in the underlying personal injury lawsuit. Appellants timely appealed to the Superior Court, arguing: (1) the trial court erred in holding the URDE was valid and enforceable; (2) that the URDE violated the provisions of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”); and (3) that the URDE violated public policy. The Superior Court affirmed the order of the trial court in a divided, published opinion. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred the URDE at issue in this case was enforceable, and affirmed the Superior Court. View "Safe Auto v. Oriental-Guillermo" on Justia Law

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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

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City of Lancaster (“the City”) enacted a measure (“Ordinance 16-2013”) that sought to superimpose municipal requirements upon state-regulated utilities that used the City’s rights-of-way to deliver services. PPL Electric Utilities Corp. (“PPL”) challenged the Ordinance, contending, inter alia, that it intruded upon, and thus was preempted by, the Code. The Commonwealth Court largely agreed, upholding PPL’s challenge with regard to all but one of the challenged provisions of the Ordinance. The provision that the Commonwealth Court upheld authorized the City to impose an “annual occupancy fee” upon utilities that utilize its municipal rights-of-way. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that all of the provisions challenged by PPL, including the annual occupancy fee, were preempted by the Code. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s decision except with respect to its allowance for the annual occupancy fee, which latter ruling was reversed. View "PPL Elec. Utilities v. City of Lancaster, et al -" on Justia Law

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Sarah DeMichele, M.D., was a board-certified psychiatrist licensed to practice medicine in Pennsylvania. From August 2011 through February 2013, Dr. DeMichele provided psychiatric care to M.R. M.R. struggled with suicidal ideations and engaged in a pattern of self-harming behavior, which she discussed regularly with Dr. DeMichele. In December 2012, M.R.’s self-inflicted injuries necessitated emergency medical treatment. M.R. ultimately was transferred to a Trauma Disorders Program in Maryland. In the program, M.R. was treated by psychiatrist Richard Loewenstein, M.D., and psychologist Catherine Fine, Ph.D. During the course of his treatment of M.R., Dr. Loewenstein obtained M.R.’s medical records from Dr. DeMichele. In 2014, Dr. Loewenstein submitted a complaint to the Professional Compliance Office of Pennsylvania’s State Board of Medicine (“Board”), in which he alleged that Dr. DeMichele’s care of M.R. was professionally deficient. Dr. Loewenstein’s complaint prompted an investigation and, ultimately, the initiation of disciplinary proceedings against Dr. DeMichele. In 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (“Bureau”) filed an order directing Dr. DeMichele to show cause as to why the Board should not suspend, revoke, or restrict her medical license, or impose a civil penalty or the costs of investigation. In advance of the hearing, Dr. DeMichele requested that the hearing examiner issue subpoenas for the testimony of M.R. and the medical records of Dr. Loewenstein, Dr. Fine, the program, and M.R.’s former treating psychologist, April Westfall, Ph.D. Relying upon the authority provided under 63 P.S. 2203(c), the hearing examiner issued the requested subpoenas. However, when served with the subpoenas, all of M.R.’s treatment providers refused to release their records absent a court order or M.R.’s authorization. M.R. subsequently refused to authorize the release of her records. In this direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to consider the enforceability of the subpoenas, as well as related questions regarding the scope and applicability of numerous statutes that protect a patient’s medical information. The Commonwealth Court granted the physician’s petition to enforce the subpoenas. Because the Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to decide the issue, it vacated that court’s order. View "In Re: Enforcement of Subpoenas b/f the Bd of Med." on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified a question of law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Plaintiffs William DeForte and Evan Townsend were employed as police officers with the Borough of Worthington (the “Borough”). Neither officer was salaried or received benefits. Instead, they were paid hourly wages and, moreover, were simultaneously employed by other police forces. The Borough’s police force consisted of four part-time officers, including Plaintiffs. On November 5, 2012, the Borough terminated Plaintiffs’ employment without affording any process. Plaintiffs brought separate actions (which were consolidated) against the Borough at the federal district court. Plaintiffs asserted, inter alia, that the Borough Code or the Tenure Act conferred a constitutionally-protected property interest in their continued employment, and the lack of any process associated with their dismissal violated their federal due process rights. They requested relief under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Borough moved for summary judgment. In ruling on the motion, the district court considered whether Plaintiffs were entitled to civil-service protections in connection with their dismissal under either the Police Tenure Act, or the Borough Code, The Supreme Court, answering the two-part question forwarded by the Third Circuit: (1) the civil service protections embodied in the Borough Code and the Tenure Act were broadly in pari materia insofar as they were intended to govern all borough police forces; and (2) when calculating the size of a borough police force in any given case, the same test should be used. More particularly, the “normal working hours” criterion contained in the Borough Code should be employed to determine how many members a borough police force has for purposes of deciding whether the Tenure Act’s two-officer maximum or the Borough Code’s three-officer minimum was implicated. View "Deforte v. Boro of Worthington" on Justia Law

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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

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A jury awarded Appellant Elliot Menkowitz, M.D. $1,000,000 in compensatory damages in his defamation suit against Appellees, Peerless Publications, Inc. (“Peerless”) and Eric Engquist. Dr. Menkowitz began his employment as an orthopedic surgeon at Pottstown Memorial Medical Center (“PMMC”) in the early 1970s. At PMMC, Dr. Menkowitz was accused of verbally abusing colleagues and staff and engaging in other inappropriate behavior in front of patients. In April 1996, Dr. Menkowitz was informed that due to his inappropriate conduct, PMMC’s Medical Executive Committee and the Medical Committee of the Board had voted to suspend him or allow him to take a voluntary leave to address his behavioral problems. Dr. Menkowitz then disclosed that he had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and suggested that he might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In light of this information, PMMC did not suspend Dr. Menkowitz or require him to take a leave of absence, but issued a written warning explaining that should Dr. Menkowitz’s misbehavior continue, PMMC would summarily suspend all of his clinical privileges. Less than a year later, based upon continuing behavioral issues, PMMC suspended Dr. Menkowitz for six months. The suspension did not last for the full six months, however, as PMMC lifted it approximately one month later when Dr. Menkowitz filed suit against PMMC in federal court for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In April 1997, the Mercury, a local Pottstown newspaper published by Peerless, ran a front-page article about Dr. Menkowitz regarding his suspension. After reading the article, Dr. Menkowitz "fell into a severe depression. Dr. Menkowitz’s treatment for this depression included multiple medications that caused fasciculations (tremors) in his arms and hands, impairing Dr. Menkowitz’s ability to perform surgery." The Superior Court found that the trial court erred in failing to enter notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") in Appellees’ favor and vacated the award of compensatory damages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider whether in so doing, the Superior Court failed to exercise appropriate deference to the fact-finder when reviewing a JNOV ruling, as explained in Joseph v. Scranton Times, L.P., 129 A.3d 404 (Pa. 2015) (“Joseph III”). The Supreme Court determined the Superior Court failed to do so, vacated its judgment and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. View "Menkowitz. v. Peerless Publications" on Justia Law