Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor.
In September 2014, prior to the request for the records at issue in this case, the Abolitionist Law Center published a report which alleged a causal connection between the ill health of inmates at SCI-Fayette, and the facility’s proximity to a fly ash dumpsite. In response to the report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) coordinated with the Department of Health (DOH) to investigate the allegations (the No Escape Investigation). Reporter Christine Haines of The Herald Standard (Appellees) sent an e-mail Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL) request to the DOC seeking documentation of inmate illnesses. The DOC denied Appellees' request in its entirety, citing several exceptions under Section 708(b) of the RTKL, as well as attorney-client privilege and deliberative process privilege grounds. Then in December 2014, in-house counsel for the DOC disclosed fifteen pages of records to Appellees. Appellees asked DOC to verify that its December disclosure was a complete response. Several additional records were subsequently released, but implicitly, the records released were the DOC's response. In February 2015, Appellees filed a petition for enforcement with the Commonwealth Court, seeking statutory sanctions and attorney fees alleging DOC demonstrated bad faith in responding to the request for records. The court identified records that the DOC should have provided. But because the panel could not discern the full extent of any non-compliance by DOC, the panel directed the parties to file a stipulation as to the disclosure status of court-identified five classes of records. Appellees' motion was thus denied without prejudice, and the court reserved judgment on the issue of bad faith sanctions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted appeal in this matter to consider the assessment of sanctions and fees based on the Commonwealth Court's finding of bad faith and willful and wanton behavior. The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed, finding that Section 1304(a0(1) of the RTKL “permit[s] recovery of attorney fees when the receiving agency determination is reversed, and it deprived a requester of access to records in bad faith.” View "Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor." on Justia Law
Woodford v. PA Insurance Dept.
In a matter of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to consider whether Section 310.74(a) of the Insurance Department Act of 1921 prohibited a licensed insurance producer from charging fees in addition to commissions in non-commercial, i.e. personal, insurance transactions. During its investigation, the Department discovered that, between March 2011 and October 2015, appellants charged a non-refundable $60- $70 fee to customers seeking to purchase personal insurance products. These fees were collected from the customers before appellants prepared the insurance policy applications. One consumer complaint indicated appellants kept an “un- refundable broker application fee” when the consumer declined to buy a policy. The Department’s investigation also revealed appellants paid a “one-time” $50 referral fee to car dealership sales personnel when they referred their customers in need of insurance. The Department concluded appellants’ fee practices included improper fees charged to consumers “for the completion of an application for a contract of insurance” and prohibited referral payments to the car dealerships. The Supreme Court held lower tribunals did not err when they determined Section 310.74(a) of the Act did not authorize appellants to charge the $60-$70 non-refundable fee to their customers seeking to purchase personal motor vehicle insurance. The Commonwealth Court’s decision upholding the Commissioner’s Adjudication and Order was affirmed. View "Woodford v. PA Insurance Dept." on Justia Law
In Re: Canvass of Absentee and Mail-In Ballots
A series of appeals presented a question of whether the Pennsylvania Election Code required a county board of elections to disqualify mail-in or absentee ballots submitted by qualified electors who signed the declaration on their ballot’s outer envelope, but did not handwrite their name, their address, and/or a date on the ballot, where no fraud or irregularity has been alleged. Petitioner Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. (the “Campaign”) challenged the decision of multiple County Boards of Elections to count absentee and mail-in ballots. The Campaign did not contest these ballots were all timely received by the respective Boards prior to 8:00 p.m. on November 3, 2020 (election day); that they were cast and signed by qualified electors; and that there was no evidence of fraud associated with their casting. The Campaign instead contended these votes should not have been counted because the voters who submitted them failed to handwrite their name, street address or the date (or some combination of the three) on the ballot-return outer envelope. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was "guided by well-established interpretive principles" including that where the language of a statute was unambiguous, the language would control. "In the case of ambiguity, we look to ascertain the legislative intent, and in election cases, we adhere to the overarching principle that the Election Code should be liberally construed so as to not deprive, inter alia, electors of their right to elect a candidate of their choice. . . . "Election laws will be strictly enforced to prevent fraud, but ordinarily will be construed liberally in favor of the right to vote." View "In Re: Canvass of Absentee and Mail-In Ballots" on Justia Law
In Re: Canvassing Observ.
This appeal arose from the processing of mail-in and absentee ballots received from voters in Philadelphia County in the November 3, 2020 General Election. Specifically, Appellee Donald J. Trump, Inc. (the “Campaign”) orally moved for the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas to give its representative more proximate access to the canvassing activities being carried out by Appellant, the Philadelphia County Board of Elections (the “Board”). The trial court denied relief, the Commonwealth Court reversed, and the Board appealed that order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Board did not act contrary to law in fashioning its regulations governing the positioning of candidate representatives during the pre-canvassing and canvassing process, as the Election Code did not specify minimum distance parameters for the location of such representatives. Critically, the Court found the Board’s regulations as applied herein were reasonable in that they allowed candidate representatives to observe the Board conducting its activities as prescribed under the Election Code. Accordingly, the Court determined the Commonwealth Court’s order was erroneous, and vacated that order. The trial court's order was reinstated. View "In Re: Canvassing Observ." on Justia Law
In Re: Consol Apl of Chester-Upland SD, et al –
The appellant property owners (“Taxpayers”) allowed billboards to be placed their lands. The appellee local taxing authorities, Chester-Upland School District and Chichester School District (the “School Districts”), filed 22 assessment appeals relating to the subject properties for tax years 2014 and forward. In their appeals, the School Districts sought to increase the assessed value based on the presence of the billboards. After relief was denied by the county assessment board, the School Districts appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. Separately, four property owners also appealed to that court after their properties were reassessed due to the presence of billboards. The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the presence of a billboard on a property could affect the valuation of that property, such as where the landowner was entitled to ongoing payments pursuant to a lease with the billboard company. The Supreme Court found the Pennsylvania General Assembly has directed that billboards and their supporting structures were not real estate for tax assessment purposes. Here, the Court concluded the Commonwealth Court appropriately concluded that, although a billboard’s value may not itself be considered when assessing the underlying real property’s value, any increase in such value attributable to the billboard’s presence could be considered. View "In Re: Consol Apl of Chester-Upland SD, et al -" on Justia Law
Fouse v. Saratoga Partners, et al
Appellants Fred and Jolene Fouse owned two parcels of land in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, identified which they used as their primary residence from the time they acquired the two parcels in 1976 and 1987, respectively. Eventually, the Fouses fell behind in paying their property taxes. As mandated by the Real Estate Tax Sale Law (RETSL), the Huntington County Tax Claim Bureau scheduled an upset tax sale. Appellees Saratoga Partners, LP submitted the highest bid. Three months later, in December 2016, the Fouses filed a “petition to redeem property sold at tax sale,” even though Huntington County, a sixth class county, prohibited post-sale redemptions. Instead, the Fouses asserted, inter alia, a right to redeem under section 7293 of the Municipal Claims and Tax Liens Act (MCTLA), by paying the amount paid by Saratoga at the tax sale. In their brief, the Fouses acknowledged that the MCTLA applied only to first and second class counties, but the absence of a right of redemption provision in the RETSL resulted in citizens of second class A through eighth class counties being treated less favorably than citizens of first and second class counties, in violation of the equal protection provisions of the federal and state constitutions. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the General Assembly’s decision to omit the right of post-sale redemption from the RETSL was constitutional because it was rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court's order upholding the denial of the Fouses' petition for redemption. View "Fouse v. Saratoga Partners, et al" on Justia Law
Seda-Cog Joint Rail Auth v. Carload Express et al
Appellant SEDA-COG Joint Rail Authority (the “JRA”) was a joint authority formed pursuant to the MAA, governed by a sixteen member Board, with each of the eight member counties appointing two members. In addition to the MAA, the Board’s operations were governed by the JRA’s bylaws and a code of conduct. Appellee Susquehanna Union Railroad Company (“SURC”) was a third-party rail line operator. The JRA began the process to award a new operating agreement. At an October 2014 Board meeting, the JRA’s counsel announced because the Board had sixteen members, a nine-vote majority was required for the Board to act. Carload Express received twenty-four points, SURC received twenty-three, and Northern Plains Railroad received thirteen. A roll call vote was taken on the motion to award the contract to Carload and, of the ten voting Board members, seven voted in favor and three against. When certain Board members questioned the nine vote requirement for action, the Board voted unanimously to table the decision to award the operating agreement to Carload pending further review of the JRA’s bylaws and the applicable law. After the meeting, Carload submitted its position to the JRA, arguing that it had been awarded the operating agreement based upon the seven-to-three vote. The JRA responded by filing an action requesting a declaration upholding its use of the nine vote requirement. The Supreme Court granted discretionary appeal to determine whether Section 5610(e) of the Pennsylvania Municipality Authorities Act's use of the phrase “members present” abrogated the common law rule that a simple majority (a majority vote of the voting members who make up the quorum of a municipal authority) carried a vote. Because the Court concluded that it did not, it affirmed the Commonwealth Court. View "Seda-Cog Joint Rail Auth v. Carload Express et al" on Justia Law
Sivick v. State Ethics Commission
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
Johnson v. Wetzel
Appellant Aquil Johnson claimed he was entitled to a refund of monies deducted from his inmate account pursuant to Act 84 because no procedural safeguards were in place when the deductions began. Recent decisions by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, certain safeguards had to be applied before the first Act 84 deduction was made in connection with a given criminal sentence. The issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case was whether relief was available where the first deduction was made before those decisions were announced. The Supreme Court found that due process mandated the Department of Corrections afford post-deprivation process analogous to the pre-deprivation procedures required by Bundy v. Wetzel, 184 A.3d 551 (2018). Further development was required to determine whether the Department already supplied Appellant with adequate post-deprivation process. The Court found Appellant failed to set forth a valid basis to implicate an administrative ability-to-pay hearing. The Commonwealth Court was affirmed insofar as it dismissed Appellant’s claims relating to negligence and the administrative ability-to-pay hearing; it was vacated to the extent it dismissed Appellant’s claim relating to due process. The matter is remanded for further proceedings. View "Johnson v. Wetzel" on Justia Law
PA Dem Party. v. Boockvar, et al : Boockvar
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party and several Democratic elected officials and congressional candidates, some in their official capacity and/or as private citizens (collectively, “Petitioner”), filed suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief relating primarily to five issues of statutory interpretation involving Act 77 of 2019 and the Election Code, 25 P.S. sections 2600-3591. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court exercised Extraordinary Jurisdiction to address these issues and to clarify the law of the Commonwealth in time for the 2020 General Election. Petitioner requested: (1) declaratory relief to confirm Act 77 permitted local election boards “to provide secure, easily accessible locations ... where appropriate, mobile or temporary collection sites, and/or drop-boxes for the collection of mail-in ballots; (2) an injunction to “lift the deadline in the Election Code across the state to allow any ballot postmarked by 8:00 p.m. on Election Night to be counted if it is received by the Boards” by 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 10, the deadline for ballots to be received under the Federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act or to allow boards discretion to extend deadlines to 21 days after the voter's ballot is mailed by the county; (3) an injunction requiring boards to contact electors whose mailed-in ballots are incomplete or incorrectly completed; (4) a declaration there was no no statutory authority to set aside an absentee or mail-in ballot solely for failure to place it into the "secrecy envelope"; and (5) a declaration that the “Election Code’s poll watcher residency requirement does not violate the United States Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments, its Equal Protection Clause, or the Equal Protection and Free and Equal Elections Clauses of the Pennsylvania Constitution.” The Supreme Court granted relief on counts 1, 2 and 5 of the petition; the Court denied relief sought on counts 3 and 4. View "PA Dem Party. v. Boockvar, et al : Boockvar" on Justia Law