Articles Posted in Pennsylvania Supreme Court

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On March 7, 2012, Sean Donahue submitted a Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) request via email to the Office of the Governor (OG), seeking various budgetary and employment records. OG’s open-records officer did not receive the request until March 12, 2012; and five business days later, on March 19, 2012, the open-records officer proceeded to grant Donahue’s request in part. On March 29, 2012, Donahue appealed to the Office of Open Records (OOR). OOR determined that Donahue’s request was "deemed denied" because OG failed to respond to the request within a five business day period as required by 65 P.S. section 67.901. Even though OG prevailed in the matter before OOR, it appealed OOR’s final order to the Commonwealth Court, where it contested OOR’s interpretation of Section 901 of the RTKL. OG contended that OOR wrongly concluded that an agency must respond to a RTKL request within five business days from the date any person within the agency receives such a request. The OG argued that an agency, including it, has five business days to respond from the date its RTKL open-records officer receives the request for records. The Commonwealth Court issued a per curiam order quashing OG’s petition for appellate review. The Commonwealth Court held that OG lacked standing to appeal from the OOR order because OG was not "aggrieved" by the order, but merely disagreed with an issue decided against it regarding the time frame for responding to RTKL records requests. In addition to appealing OOR’s final order, OG simultaneously filed a declaratory judgment action in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction, seeking a declaration that OOR misinterpreted Section 901 of the RTKL with respect to the commencement of the five business day period for responding to a RTKL request under Section 901.3. Finding no reversible error in the Commonwealth Court's order, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Governor's Office v. Office of Open Records" on Justia Law

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Given time constraints associated with an impending primary election contest, this election appeal was previously resolved in per curiam Order of the Supreme Court. With the exigency abated, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court took an opportunity to supplement its brief explanation provided in the earlier Order. The Court determined that Pennsylvania courts are not empowered to employ principles of equity to override the express statutory command that the failure of a candidate for statewide public office to file a timely statement of financial interests with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission "shall . . . be a fatal defect to a petition to appear on the ballot." On March 10, 2014, Robert Guzzardi filed a timely nomination petition with the Department of State, seeking placement of his name on the ballot for the Republican nomination for the Office of Governor. Although an original statement of financial interests was appended to his petition, Mr. Guzzardi failed to make the mandatory tender to the Ethics Commission prior to the statutory deadline. Appellants, qualified electors and registered voters, filed a petition to set the nomination petition aside in the Commonwealth Court. Among other challenges, they invoked the statutory fatal-defect rule which, by its plain terms, required Mr. Guzzardi’s name to be removed from the primary election ballot, in light of his undisputed failure to file a timely statement of financial interests with the Ethics Commission. The Commonwealth Court, however, refused to enforce the governing legislative directive. Rather, the single judge administering the matter conducted a hearing and issued an order denying Appellants’ objections. In an unpublished opinion, she relied on a line of Commonwealth Court decisions which have found the judiciary to be possessed with the power to permit a fatal defect to be "cured" through the application of equitable principles: it was the court’s position that Mr. Guzzardi had offered sufficient, non-negligent explanations to justify treating his late-filed statement nunc pro tunc, or as if it had been submitted to the Ethics Commission on time. "[T]here is no dispute here that the statutory fatal-defect rule applied squarely in Mr. Guzzardi’s circumstances, on account of his failure to timely file a statement of financial interests with the Commission. Moreover, Appellants lodged timely objections to his nomination petition, bringing the matter squarely before the Commonwealth Court. In the circumstances, the Commonwealth Court erred in refusing to enforce the governing statutory command." View "In Re: Nomination of Guzzardi" on Justia Law

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In 2010, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia filed an Application for Zoning/Use Registration Permit with the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections ("L&I") for conversion of the Nativity B.V.M. Elementary School into a 63-unit, one-bedroom apartment complex for low income senior citizens. The school was built in 1912 and operated by the Archdiocese in legal non-conformance with subsequently enacted zoning codes until 2008, when it had been closed due to declining enrollment and insufficient revenue. In 2009, the Archdiocese received funding under the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") to convert the school to senior housing. L&I denied the Archdiocese's Application for Zoning/Use Registration Permit as not in compliance with several provisions of the Philadelphia Zoning Code. The Archdiocese appealed to the City of Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment ("ZBA") for use and dimensional variances. The issue this case presented to the Supreme Court was whether the Commonwealth Court applied an improper standard in reversing the ZBA's grant of a variance. After careful review of the Commonwealth Court's opinion the Court concluded that the court erred by relying on an improper standard for unnecessary hardship and by substituting its judgment for that of the ZBA, thereby applying an incorrect standard of review. View "Marshall v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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Andre Leonti, a resident of Fayette County, died intestate in 2006. Thereafter, Cheryl Keefer, a purported friend of Decedent, filed a petition with the Register for the grant of letters of administration which listed the heirs and personal assets of Decedent as "unknown" and indicated that there was no real estate. The Register refused to grant letters to Keefer because she did not have Decedent's death certificate, was not his next of kin, and, therefore, was not a person entitled to letters. Keefer, through her attorney, filed a petition to authorize the Register to issue letters to her without producing a death certificate and further directing the Mon Valley Hospital to release the Decedent's remains for a funeral and burial. Keefer attached a purported copy of a power of attorney executed by Decedent. No one contested this petition, and, on the same day the petition was filed, the orphan's court issued an order authorizing and directing the Register to issue letters "without the necessity of requiring a death certificate," and further ordering and directing the Hospital to release Decedent's remains to Keefer for funeral and burial. In compliance with this order, the Register issued letters to Keefer, but did not secure a bond from her. Several months later, Keefer filed with the Register an inventory of the estate. One month later, Appellee Elvira Dorsey, a resident of Texas who claimed to be Decedent's niece, became aware of Decedent's estate, and alleged she was the sole surviving heir of Decedent. Appellee petitioned for Keefer's removal as administratrix. The orphan's court granted Appellee's petition, issued an order, and required Keefer to deliver to Appellee the custody and possession of Decedent's estate's assets. Keefer, however, did not deliver the assets of the estate to Appellee. The orphan's court issued an order holding Keefer in contempt, sentencing Keefer to six months imprisonment, and directing that a verdict be entered in favor of Appellee and against Keefer in the amount of $192,769.19. Appellee filed praecipes for entry of judgment with the Fayette County Prothonotary and the Register to enter judgment against Keefer. Appellee then filed a complaint against the Register, individually, and Western Surety Company, alleging that the Register and Surety were liable for damages resulting from the Register's failure to secure bonding, which, Appellee asserted, was required by law. In this appeal by allowance, the primary issue this case presented to the Supreme Court was the applicability of governmental and official immunity with respect to a claim alleging a violation of bonding requirements mandated under the Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code ("PEF Code"). Ultimately, the Court held that the General Assembly intended that 20 Pa.C.S.A. 3172 created a targeted form of accountability for such registers, resting outside the scope of governmental and official immunity. Therefore, the Fayette County Register of Wills was not immune under the Tort Claims Act from liability for an alleged violation of Section 3172. The case was remanded back to the orphan's court for an assessment of the applicability of the the immunity defense, and for a more developed factual record. View "Dorsey v. Redman" on Justia Law

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In 2011, while driving home from a funeral reception, Appellee William Bell crossed the center line of a road and struck another vehicle. A woman was killed as a result of the impact. Following trial, Bell was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance-bac.16+, homicide by vehicle while DUI, and homicide by vehicle, In this appeal, the Supreme Court addressed questions of whether convictions for homicide by vehicle and homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence (DUI) merged for operating privilege suspension purposes under the Vehicle Code, and, more generally, whether the criminal doctrine of merger was applicable to the collateral civil consequences which flow from merged, underlying criminal convictions. The Court held that the Commonwealth Court improperly found the criminal doctrine of merger was applicable in the civil arena of operating privilege suspensions under 75 Pa.C.S. sections 1532(a), (a.1). Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed. View "Bell v. Bureau of Driver Licensing" on Justia Law

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Appellants appealed a Commonwealth Court decision which considered the application of personal income tax (PIT) to various nonresidents, who invested as limited partners in a Connecticut limited partnership, which existed for the sole purpose of owning and operating a skyscraper in Pittsburgh, which ultimately went into foreclosure in 2005. The Commonwealth Court held that the partnership was subject to PIT commensurate with the total debt discharged as a result of the foreclosure, and therefore the nonresident limited partners were liable for PIT in an amount proportionate with their shares in the partnership. The Partnership incurred net operating losses for accounting, federal tax, and PIT purposes in every year of its existence. For PIT purposes, the Partnership allocated those losses to Appellants (and all of the other limited partners) and, because Appellants had no Pennsylvania-based income for 1985-2004, they did not file Pennsylvania PIT returns for those years. By June 30, 2005, the compounded, accrued interest totaled $2.32 billion, thus making the total liability on the Purchase Money Note more than $2.6 billion. When the Note matured given the insurmountable debt that had accrued, the Partnership was unable to sell the Property. Accordingly, the lender foreclosed, and, because the Partnership no longer owned the Property, the Partnership soon after liquidated. None of the limited partners, including Appellants, received any proceeds from the Property’s foreclosure or the Partnership’s liquidation, and therefore lost their entire investments in the Partnership. Following the Property’s foreclosure, but prior to the Partnership’s liquidation, the Partnership reported a gain as a result of the foreclosure on its federal and state tax filings that consisted of the unpaid balance of the Purchase Money Note’s principal and the accrued, compounded interest. Despite their individual investment losses, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue assessed PIT against Appellants, plus interest and penalties, related to the foreclosure on the Property for the 2005 tax year. The Supreme Court empathized with Appellants who found "themselves with significant financial burdens because of the loss of their investments, the liquidation of the Partnership, and the foreclosure of the Property." Nevertheless, the assessment of PIT by the Department was proper, as a matter of constitutional, statutory, and regulatory law. Therefore, the Court affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court sustaining the assessment of PIT. View "Wirth v. Pennsylvania " on Justia Law

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In 1975, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board certified Intervenor, AFSCME, District Council 89 ("Union") as the exclusive representative of a unit for purposes of collective bargaining which included, inter alia, prison security guards, special guards, and transportation, maintenance, and supply employees. Since the unit certification, Appellee Lancaster County and the Union have been parties to several collective bargaining agreements. However, notwithstanding the Board's certification of maintenance employees in the bargaining unit, the parties have not negotiated over the wages, hours, and conditions of employment for the Maintenance Mechanic I and Maintenance Mechanic II positions. In 2009, the County Commissioners adopted a reorganization plan that placed all County maintenance and custodial employees under the centralized Facilities Management Department. Two days later, the Union filed with the Board a petition for bargaining unit clarification which sought to include the positions of Maintenance Mechanic I and Maintenance Mechanic II in the unit of prison guards. The issue on appeal to the Supreme Court was whether county prison maintenance employees who supervise inmates constituted "guards at prisons" for purposes of collective bargaining unit placement under the Pennsylvania Employe Relations Act. After review, the Court held that the Commonwealth Court did not apply the proper level of deference in its appellate review of the decision of the Labor Relations Board which concluded that supervisory maintenance employees at issue were “guards at prisons” for purposes of collective bargaining. Thus, the Court reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court and reinstated the Board’s determination. View "Lancaster Cty v. PA Labor Relations Bd." on Justia Law

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This appeal centered on whether the Pennsylvania School Code's compulsory school age and attendance provisions applied to children under eight years old whose parents voluntarily enrolled them in public kindergarten programs made available by school districts. The trial court and Commonwealth Court both held that once a child who meets a district's minimum entrance age is enrolled in a district's public school kindergarten program, the child is subject to compulsory school attendance, meaning continuous and consistent attendance without excessive unexcused absences. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Kerstetter" on Justia Law

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This case was among a number of civil actions brought by state attorneys general against pharmaceutical companies challenging the propriety of prescription drug pricing, as it impacted third-party reimbursement for brand-name drug purchases subsidized by government social welfare programs. The Commonwealth focused its claims upon alleged overpayments tied to the use of an industry benchmark figure (average wholesale price, or "AWP") in government reimbursement formulas. While many issues of concern were raised about the Commonwealth’s approach to this litigation and the judgment it has obtained, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the monetary component of that judgment grounded on the Commonwealth’s failure to offer a rational accounting for the billion dollars in rebate monies which Commonwealth agencies received from the drug manufacturers it sued. View "Pennsylvania v. TAP Pharmaceutical Products, Inc." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was the interpretation of the Commonwealth Charter School Law. Pursuant to the Charter School Law, the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School was awarded a charter for a five-year term ending June 30, 2005. In late 2004, the Charter School filed a renewal application. On March 16, 2005, the School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia (“SRC”) adopted a resolution that granted, “upon signing a new Charter Agreement,” the Charter School’s request for renewal of the charter for a second five-year period commencing on September 1, 2005. The SRC denied the Charter School's request for expansion of enrollment, and granted approval "to enroll a maximum of six hundred and seventy five (675) students and serve grades kindergarten through 8." The SRC and the Charter School then entered into, as of September 1, 2005, a legally binding agreement that incorporated the SRC Resolution in its entirety and extended the charter for five years ("the 2005 Charter"). The 2005 Charter explicitly referenced and incorporated the SRC Resolution, one provision of which capped student enrollment, explicitly mandated that the Charter School comply with the SRC Resolution; and explicitly constituted a legally binding, mutual agreement of five years duration, the terms of which could not be changed absent a written agreement signed by both parties. The legally binding nature of the terms of the 2005 Charter was mandated by a provision of the Charter School Law. Notwithstanding the terms of the 2005 Charter, the Charter School consistently enrolled more than the 675 students permitted by that Charter. For the 2007-2008 school year, the Charter School’s average daily enrollment was approximately 729 students; for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the average daily enrollment was approximately 732 and 765 students, respectively. In each school year, the School District of Philadelphia provided funding for 675 students based on the 2005 Charter. In July 2010, asserting that it had been underpaid by the School District, the Charter School requested that the Pennsylvania Department of Education withhold $1,678,579 from the School District's basic education subsidy allocation as payment to the Charter School for the students it had educated in addition to the 675 students permitted by the enrollment cap for school years 2007-2008, 2008-2009, and 2009–2010. The School District objected to the withholding and a hearing was held before the Department. The Secretary of Education determined that the Charter School had agreed and legally assented to the enrollment cap when it signed the 2005 Charter, and therefore, the Charter School was not entitled to payment for students enrolled above that cap in the 2007-2008 school year. However, with regard to the school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the Secretary determined that the enrollment cap set forth in the 2005 Charter was no longer valid because of the enactment of an amendment to the Charter School Law which had become effective on July 1, 2008 (24 P.S. section 17-1723-A(d)). Based on his interpretation, the Secretary concluded that, to maintain the 2005 Charter’s enrollment cap subsequent to the effective date of the amendment, the School District was required to re-obtain the Charter School’s “legal assent” to the cap. Ultimately, the Secretary determined that the Charter School was entitled to payment by the School District for the education of all the students enrolled in the school for the years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, including those enrolled beyond the cap. The School District appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed. The School District appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed: "based on the plain text of 24 P.S. section 17-1723-A(d), we conclude that an enrollment cap is valid if agreed to by the parties as part of a written charter." View "Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia v. Dept. of Education" on Justia Law