Opinion Summaries for the

Below are summaries of the precedential appellate decisions from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Third Circuit for the week of August 15th. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s entire opinion.


Commonwealth v. Lopez

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 706(C) does not require a trial court to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing mandatory costs at sentencing. The Court noted that the pertinent question was not whether the trial court has a duty under Rule 706(C) to determine the amount and method of payment of a fine or costs, but when this duty arises. The Court determined that “given the context and sequential structure of Rule 706, the determination referenced in Section (C) is made post-sentence upon the defendant’s default and a finding of his inability to pay.” The Court held that Rule 706 does not apply unless and until there has been a default in paying fines or costs.

Read Justice Donohue’s dissent here.

#CriminalLaw, #StatutoryInterpretation, #Costs

Commonwealth v. Reid

In this death penalty case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the PCRA court’s order and ruled that the court “erred in the manner in which it assessed Appellant’s claim that he was incompetent to stand trial, as the court’s reasoning, inter alia, failed to account for new, post-conviction evidence that potentially demonstrates that Appellant was incompetent to stand trial.” A jury convicted Appellant of two counts of first-degree murder for killing his estranged wife and her fourteen-year-old daughter. He received two death sentences, and the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of sentence. Appellant subsequently filed a PCRA petition, which the lower court denied. Appellant appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed in part the PCRA court’s order but remanded the matter while retaining jurisdiction, directing the PCRA court to provide a supplemental opinion addressing why it denied relief on the following issue: “Was the defendant incompetent to proceed to trial and represent himself; were prior counsel ineffective for failing to investigate and effectively litigate this issue before trial and failing to raise it on appeal?” The PCRA court complied, and the Supreme Court reversed because the PCRA court’s assessment of Appellant’s competency to stand trial in 1998 failed to account for the new, post-conviction evidence that demonstrated that he was not competent.

#CriminalLaw, #PCRA, #Competency

Kornfeind v. New Werner Holding Co.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the Pennsylvania Uniform Statute of Limitations on Foreign Claims Act requires our courts to apply or “borrow” a foreign jurisdiction’s statute of repose to a claim that has accrued in a foreign jurisdiction. The Court ruled that the Act does not require the application of a foreign jurisdiction’s statute of repose. The issue arose when Plaintiff — an Illinois resident — filed a product’s liability action in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against a Pennsylvania Company. Illinois law provides for a ten-year statute of repose, which would preclude the instant litigation. Pennsylvania law has no such bar. The Supreme Court held that the plain language of Section 5521 does not encompass a foreign jurisdiction’s statute of repose, just its statute of limitations. For those wondering, statutes of limitation begin to run when a claim accrues. In contrast, statutes of repose begin to run from the date of the defendant’s last culpable act or omission.

#CivilLaw, #StatuteOfLimitations, #StatuteOfRepose

Goodwin v. Goodwin

In this divorce matter, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether specific life insurance and individual retirement account (IRA) proceeds that Johanna L. Goodwin (Wife) acquired as sole beneficiary before the dissolution of her marriage to Scott M. Goodwin (Husband) fell within the purview of Section 3501(a)(3) of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code. Wife had a three-year-old son from another marriage when she married Husband. Son died intestate and without any children or heirs other than Wife. Son had acquired four life insurance policies; he also had an IRA. Concerning the life insurance policies and IRA, the parties did not dispute: (1) Son named Wife as the sole beneficiary of each of the four life insurance policies and IRA; (2) no marital assets were used to pay for the life insurance policies or fund the IRA; (3) upon Son’s death, Wife received all of the proceeds of the four life insurance policies; and (4) Wife never jointly titled any proceeds from Son’s passing in Husband’s name or the name of any other third party. Wife then filed a divorce complaint, and Husband filed an answer and counterclaim seeking alimony. The trial court entered a decree and order terminating the marriage of Husband and Wife, distributing the marital estate, and obligating Wife to pay Husband alimony. The trial court determined that the proceeds of Son’s life insurance policies and his IRA that Wife received upon Son’s death were not marital property. The trial court further concluded that all investments, real estate, or other assets Wife purchased or acquired with those proceeds were not marital property. Husband appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that by virtue of funding the life insurance policies and IRA, naming Wife sole beneficiary thereof, and then passing away, prompting the payout of the policies and IRA to Wife, Son voluntarily transferred—via the life insurance policies and IRA—property to Wife without compensation. Accordingly, the proceeds qualify as property acquired by “gift” within the plain meaning of the term in Section 3501(a)(3) of the Divorce Code as it is commonly used and understood.

#CivilLaw, #Divorce, #EquitableDistribution, #StatutoryInterpretation

Povacz v. Pa. Pub. Util. Comm’n

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the Public Utility Code’s section that compels electric distribution companies to furnish smart meters to customers. Some customers did not want a smart meter and brought suit. The Supreme Court held that Act 129 mandates that the companies furnish smart meters to all electric customers within an electric distribution service area and does not allow electric customers to opt out of having a smart meter installed. An electric customer concerned about smart meters may seek accommodation from the company or the Public Utility Commission. To obtain one, the customer must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that installing a smart meter would not be safe and reasonable under Section 1501.

Read Judge Dougherty’s concurring and dissenting opinion here.

#AdministrativeLaw, #Utilities

Commonwealth v. Lake

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed Defendant’s conviction and sentence for intimidation, simple assault, and related charges. He argued that the evidence was insufficient, the verdicts were against the weight of the evidence, there were errors in the jury charge, and his sentence was illegal. The case involved a domestic incident that included the victim testifying that Defendant “got angry because he thought I was going to call 911, and we struggled with the phone.” Defendant did not object to that testimony. The Court found the evidence sufficient because the jury could infer that Defendant grabbed the victim’s phone to keep her from calling 911. And the Court held that the victim’s opinion that Defendant was trying to keep her from calling 911 was enough to fend off the weight-of-the-evidence challenge. The Court ruled that the jury charge claim was waived. Finally, the Court determined that Defendant’s sentence was legal because he was charged with first-degree aggravated assault. Thus the intimidation charge was properly graded also as a first-degree felony.

#CriminalLaw, #Sentencing, #Intimidation

Commonwealth v. Sulpizio

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the criminal mischief conviction of an over-zealous pro-lifer. The defendant was distributing pro-life material at a women’s center when the center’s security coordinator arrived in his car. Surveillance footage showed the vehicle turning into the parking lot and the defendant reaching out to strike the car. The security coordinator heard a bang, then saw a dent on his door. At trial, a collision estimator totaled the damage at more than $1,000. The trial court found the defendant guilty of second-degree criminal mischief. He appealed, raising three issues: 1.) a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to prove intent to damage the vehicle; 2.) a challenge to the grading of the offense and the restitution order; and 3.) a challenge to the condition of probation prohibiting him from entering the right-of-way. The Superior Court ruled that ample evidence supported the verdict and the offense’s grading. And the Court applied the four factors in United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968), to determine that the probation condition was reasonable, had a sufficient nexus to the criminal conduct, and served important rehabilitative goals.

#CriminalLaw, #Sufficiency, #Sentencing, #FirstAmendment

In re appeal of Apr. 24, 2018, Decision of the Charlestown Twp. Zoning & Hearing Bd.

Don’t go trying to put up a billboard in Charlestown, so says the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The township enacted a zoning ordinance that permitted outdoor, off-premises billboards in a particular district. A statewide regulation concerning roadside billboards promulgated by PennDOT has the practical effect of barring that use. A company that leases property in the contested zone filed a substantive validity challenge to Charlestown Township’s ordinance, asserting that it is de facto exclusionary. “In a de facto exclusion case, the challenger alleges that an ordinance appears to permit a use, but under such conditions that the use cannot in fact be accomplished.” The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the statewide regulation, not the challenged ordinance, precluded the billboard. As a result, the Court affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court that rejected the lessee’s challenge.

Read Justice Mundy’s dissenting opinion here.

Read Justice Brobson’s dissenting opinion here.


In re Appeal of Coatesville Area Sch. Dist.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court dealt with an appeal regarding a property tax assessment and, more particularly, whether the property at issue was owed a partial or total exemption from its previous assessment. The property owner applied for an exemption from real estate taxes because it is a public charity. But the Board of Assessment Appeals only granted a partial exemption of 72%. The dispute revolved around the requirements to qualify as a purely public charity set forth in Hospital Utilization Project v. Commonwealth, commonly called the HUP test, the Institutions of Purely Public Charity Act, and the Consolidated County Assessment Law. The Commonwealth Court ruled that the property was 100% exempt from taxation.

#AdministrativeLaw, #RealProperty, #TaxLaw

Diaz v. Dep’t of Gen. Servs.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed the adjudication of the Pennsylvania Department of General Services (Department) that denied a claim for a $100,000 death benefit under the Emergency and Law Enforcement Personnel Death Benefits Act (Act 101). Claimant is the surviving spouse of Raymond Diaz (Decedent), who served Philadelphia as a police officer. In her appeal, Claimant argued the Department erred in concluding that Decedent did not die in the performance of his duties. The Court held that “Claimant’s testimony and documentary evidence established a causal connection between Decedent’s work injury and his death. But for the work injury, Decedent would not have been prescribed pain medication or experienced ongoing balance problems that led to a fall in 2016. But for that fall, he would not have needed surgery or been prescribed hydromorphone. Regardless of whether the fall resulted from his post-concussive syndrome, it is undisputed that but for Decedent’s work injury, oxycodone and fentanyl would not have been present in his bloodstream when he took the hydromorphone, and their fatal combination with hydromorphone would not have occurred. Thus, Decedent’s death was a direct result of the injuries he sustained in the performance of his official duties. . . . Foreseeability and superseding cause are irrelevant to Act 101 benefits.”

#AdministrativeLaw, #Act101

Cass v. Unemployment Bd of Rev.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review’s order that reversed the Referee’s decision awarding Claimant unemployment compensation benefits. The Board determined that Claimant resigned from her job to relocate to be closer to her spouse’s new job. Maintaining the family unit by moving to be with one’s spouse is a necessitous and compelling reason to leave work if the spouse’s relocation was outside his control and the move created an insurmountable commuting problem or economic hardship in maintaining two residences. Here, Claimant’s spouse admitted he applied for the new job as a career advancement. Consequently, Claimant lacked a necessitous and compelling reason to leave her employment. The Commonwealth Court applied the “two-fold burden” of the follow-the-spouse doctrine, concluding that Claimant failed to establish that circumstances beyond her husband’s control caused his need to relocate.

#AdministrativeLaw, #Unemployment

O’Neill v. State Emps.’ Ret. Sys.

BREAKING NEWS: Pennsylvania judges unanimously rule that a Pennsylvania judge convicted of federal crimes still gets his pension. Judge O’Neill sat in Philadelphia Municipal Court and was the first judge the author of this opinion ever appeared before. Judge O’Neil was convicted of false statements to a federal agent. Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act mandates the forfeiture of the pension of a public official or public employee when convicted of certain Pennsylvania crimes related to public office or public employment or are convicted of federal offenses that are “substantially the same” as the forfeit-triggering state crimes. Here, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal conviction was not substantially the same as Pennsylvania’s crime of false reports to law enforcement authorities. If anyone wants to hear war stories about Judge O’Neil, call Sullivan | Simon.

#AdministrativeLaw, #Pension


State v. A.L.A.

The New Jersey Supreme Court considered “whether a jury could have understood that the affirmative defense of reasonable corporal punishment applied to both a child endangerment charge and a simple assault charge where the reasonable corporal punishment instruction was provided only in the instructions for the child endangerment offense.” The State tried Defendant for multiple counts of physically abusing her four grandchildren. The parties agreed that the following jury instruction should be used when there is a child endangering charge under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a): “The law does not prohibit the use of corporal punishment. The statute prohibits the infliction of excessive corporal punishment. The general proposition is that a parent may inflict moderate correction such as is reasonable under the circumstances of the case.” The trial court used this language in instructing the jury on the child endangerment count but not the simple assault charge. After the trial court instructed the jury, defense counsel sought an instruction for the simple assault charge noting the reasonable corporal punishment exception. The court declined to change the charge, and the jury acquitted the defendant of all child endangerment charges but convicted her of one count of simple assault with respect to only one of the children. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the jury could not have understood that the reasonable corporal punishment language in the child endangerment charge also applied to the simple assault charge. Therefore, the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury, in the context of the simple assault charge, that reasonable corporal punishment is not prohibited.

#CriminalLaw, #JuryInstruction

State v. Hahn

The New Jersey Appellate Division jumped back into the long-running fight over an interrogator’s responsibility to inform a person about his status as a suspect before commencing an interrogation. Here, Defendant was receiving treatment at a hospital the day after he was involved in a fatal car crash. Detectives came to interview him, but no formal charges had been approved. They told him they were there about the collision, and when Defendant asked if he should have an attorney, the detectives discussed his rights before confirming he wished to answer questions without an attorney. The Appellate Division ruled that there was no carefully orchestrated custodial interrogation designed to affirmatively mislead Defendant. Therefore, the statement was admissible. But the Appellate Division vacated Defendant’s convictions for first-degree aggravated manslaughter because the trial court did not charge the jury on the lesser-included offense of aggravated manslaughter, i.e., second-degree reckless manslaughter.

#CriminalLaw, #Miranda, #JuryInstruction

Schwartz v. Means

In these consolidated appeals, which arose from two actions based on real estate development disputes, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether the plaintiffs Larry Schwartz and NJ 322, LLC, should have been permitted to present evidence of lost profits damages under Weiss v. Rev. Bldg. & Loan Ass’n, 116 N.J.L. 208 (E. & A. 1936), and the “new business rule,” which bars claims for lost profits by new businesses on the ground that no such claim can be proven with reasonable certainty. In the first action, the plaintiffs sued their former legal counsel, two real estate developers, and executives employed by the developers, alleging that the defendants’ tortious conduct deprived them of the opportunity to construct an affordable housing complex. Based on the new business rule, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to bar testimony by the plaintiffs’ expert on lost profits. In the second case, Schwartz sued his former counsel for legal malpractice and breach of contract arising from the proposed development of two properties. The trial court found that Schwartz’s venture was a new business and barred expert opinion about lost profits. The Appellate Division affirmed in both cases. The Supreme Court reversed and joined the majority of jurisdictions that reject a per se ban on claims by new businesses for lost profits damages, declining to follow Weiss to the extent that the case bars any claim by a new business for such damages. The Court ruled that claims for lost profits damages are governed by the standard of reasonable certainty and require a fact-sensitive analysis. And because it is substantially more difficult for a new business to establish lost profits damages with reasonable certainty, a trial court should carefully scrutinize a new business’s claim that a defendant’s tortious conduct or breach of contract prevented it from profiting from an enterprise in which it has no experience and should bar that claim unless it can be proven with reasonable certainty.

#CivilLaw, #RealEstateLaw

Puglia v. Phillips

The New Jersey Appellate Division dealt with siblings’ acrimonious fight over their parents’ estate. The case involved a law-school-worthy factual scenario that touched on family law, landlord-tenant law, civil procedure, and bad blood. In the end, over Plaintiffs’ objection, pursuant to the Offer of Judgment rule, Rule 4:58-1 to -6, the lower court entered final judgment for $10,107.77 in Plaintiffs’ favor. The offer of judgment rule was designed as a mechanism to encourage, promote, and stimulate early out-of-court settlement of claims that in justice and reason ought to be settled without trial. If a party that was not originally a claimant asserts a counterclaim, that party’s offer shall also include all claims by and against the party. Here, Plaintiffs wanted to appeal an earlier interlocutory summary judgment order notwithstanding the final judgment in their favor. The lower court denied the request. The Appellate Division affirmed because Defendants’ offer of judgment included all claims by and against them.

#CivilLaw, #FamilyLaw, #LandlordTenant, #OfferOfJudgmentRule


R and C Oilfield Serv. LLC v. Am. Wind Transp. Grp. LLC

The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of this case after R and C Oilfield Serv. “steadfastly refused to proceed to arbitration.” R&C filed suit, asserting that American Wind breached an agreement by failing to make payments. American Wind moved to dismiss the complaint or stay the case based on the agreement’s arbitration provision. R&C opposed the motion, contending that the arbitration clause was unenforceable. The District Court ordered arbitration. Seventeen months later, after R&C stated that it would not participate in arbitration, the District Court dismissed the case with prejudice according to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) for failure to prosecute. R&C appealed and asked the Third Circuit to review the Rule 41(b) order and the interlocutory order compelling arbitration, after it took no action to seek interlocutory review as permitted under the Federal Arbitration Act and refused to proceed to arbitration. The Court determined that under these circumstances, “prudence counsels against merging the interlocutory order with the final Rule 41(b) order. As a result, the interlocutory order is not part of the final order,” and the Third Circuit lacked the jurisdiction to review the order compelling arbitration. As to the Rule 41(b) order, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the case.

#CivilLaw, #Arbitration, #Interlocutory, #FRCP41

Williams v. Superintendent Mahanoy SCI

The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the petitioner’s habeas corpus petition from a state conviction for first-degree murder. The petitioner unsuccessfully relied on an alibi defense at trial. In a PCRA petition, he claimed that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call his niece as an additional witness. But trial counsel testified he never knew of the nieces’s existence, and even if he had, he would not have called her because it would have presented a different version of events than the defense was already relying on. The state courts denied relief. The petitioner then filed the instant habeas petition wherein he argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present a self-defense theory. The Third Circuit based its ruling on the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) procedural rules. The Court ruled that the new claim may have had some merit saving it from procedural default, but, nonetheless, the claim failed. Under AEDPA, federal courts review the state court’s record under a highly deferential standard. And the United States Supreme Court recently decided Shin v. Ramirez, wherein the Court held that a federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state court record based on the ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel. Thus, the District Court could not develop the record to substantiate the claim, and it therefore must fail.

#CriminalLaw, #Habeas, #IneffectiveAsssistance, #IAC

Popa v. Harriet Carter Gifts, Inc.

A case involving pet litigation returns to the S | S newsletter! Ms. Popa visited Harriet Carter Gifts’ website, hoping to find pet stairs. She saw a set she liked and added them to her cart. However, she left the website without buying them. (She might have been interrupted by Fluffy’s need to go outside and . . . .) Ms. Popa later discovered that unbeknownst to her as she was browsing the website, a third-party marketing service Harriet Carter was using NaviStone to track her activities across the site. Ms. Popa believed this violated Pennsylvania’s anti-wiretapping law, prohibiting the interception of wire, electronic, or oral communications, and she sued in a Pennsylvania state court. The Defendants removed the case to federal court. The District Court granted the Defendants’ summary judgment motion, holding that NaviStone could not have intercepted Ms. Popa’s communications because it was a party to the electronic conversation. Alternatively, the District Court ruled that if any interception did occur, it happened outside Pennsylvania’s borders. Thus, the Wiretap Act did not apply. The Third Circuit reversed, reading Pennsylvania law differently on both holdings. First, the Third Circuit determined that under “Pennsylvania law, there is no direct-party exception to liability under the Wiretap Act (save for law enforcement under specific conditions). Therefore, the Defendants cannot avoid liability merely by showing that Ms. Popa directly communicated with NaviStone’s servers. Second, the Third Circuit held “that the place of interception is the point at which the signals were routed to NaviStone’s servers” and remanded for the District Court “to determine anew whether there is a genuine issue of material fact about where the interception occurred”

#CivilLaw, #SummaryJudgment, #Wiretap

Nekrilov v. Jersey City

The Third Circuit just made renting an Airbnb in Jersey City more difficult. Plaintiffs filed a 1983 action against the city, arguing that a recent ordinance violated their constitutional rights under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Contract Clause of Article I, and the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Jersey City had passed a zoning ordinance legalizing short-term rentals. Plaintiffs bought properties in the city and began renting them out as Airbnbs. Then, Jersey City did an about-face and passed an ordinance curtailing the ability of property owners and leaseholders to operate short-term rentals. Therefore, Plaintiff’s filed the instant suit. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s order granting the city’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion after an extensive analysis of each constitutional claim.

#CivilLaw, #Zoning, #CivilRights

Hoboken v. Chevron Corp.

The Third Circuit passed on the opportunity to rule on “two sweeping climate-change suits.” Hoboken and the State of Delaware sued fossil fuel companies in state court, claiming that the companies violated state tort laws by producing, marketing, and selling fossil fuels that had worsened climate change. The fossil fuel companies sought to remove to federal court, noting that climate change is a global problem that federal courts, not state courts, should address. The District Court disagreed, noting that four other circuit courts had ruled similarly in analogous litigation. The companies needed to show that these state claims are preempted by federal law or that some substantial federal issue must be resolved because the complaints allege only the torts of nuisance, trespass, negligence, and misrepresentation, plus consumer-fraud violations, all under state law. The Third Circuit ruled that the defendants failed to meet their burden and remanded the case to state court.

#CivilLaw, #Jurisdiction, #Removal

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