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 8th. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s entire opinion.


PENNSYLVANIA

Commonwealth v. McMahon

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reminded the defendant that the plain view exception to the warrant requirement applies to car stops in Pennsylvania. The trial court denied the defendant’s suppression motion and convicted him of possession of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana. The defendant argued on appeal that Alexander supported his claim that exigent circumstances were necessary to seize marijuana cigarettes legally. The Court disagreed, noting that Alexander did not involve plain view, and ruled that the officers had a lawful right of access to the marijuana cigarettes observed in plain view.

#CriminalLaw, #Suppression, #CarStop, #PlainView


Commonwealth v. Brown

The Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed for the second time a search of defendant’s car. In an unusual procedural quirk, the Superior Court remanded the case in 2019 because the panel concluded that the trial court erred when it quashed a portion of defendant’s subpoena seeking information from the State Police regarding the reliability of its drug-sniffing dog. On remand, the Commonwealth passed the discovery and the lower court again denied suppression. On appeal this time around, defendant argued that he was entitled to relief under Alexander, but the Superior Court disagreed. The Court ruled that defendant had waived any challenge under Alexander because he raised it for the first time in the instant appeal. The Superior Court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of defendant’s speedy-trial motion under Rule 600. The Court reasoned that it previously remanded the case for a new suppression hearing, not a new trial. And since Rule 600 is a speedy trial right — and not a speedy motion right — defendant could not secure relief under the rule.

Read Judge Dubow’s concurring opinion here.

#CriminalLaw, #Suppression, #Rule600


MBC Dev., LP v. Miller

In this appeal before the Pennsylvania Superior Court, a father and son were on opposing sides. So, you know it was personal. The family entered into several partnerships. And like any healthy family agreement, those partnership agreements contained arbitration agreements (the author of this summary is now considering an arbitration agreement with his son to help resolve issues about TV time). A dispute arose and the family gathered ’round the arbitration table. But the trial court permanently stayed the arbitration and the son appealed. The Superior Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. It held that arbitration should be stayed against certain non-signatories to the partnership agreements but that the disputes between the contracting family should proceed even if some of the disputes were derivative claims. The holidays are gonna be rough this year in the Miller household. Yikes.

#CivilLaw, #Arbitration


RCKA Invs. LLC v. Johnson

The Pennsylvania Superior Court gave a quick tutorial on residential evictions and Rule 1001 of the Philadelphia County local rules. Here, the Municipal Court judge ruled in favor of a landlord and granted possession of the property as well as back rent to the landlord. The tenant appealed to the Court of Common Pleas for a de novo trial. The Court of Common Pleas dismissed the appeal because the tenant did not pursue a supersedeas by placing back rent into an ESCROW account. The Superior Court reversed and held that the supersedeas only protects the tenant from being evicted during the pendency of the appeal but is not a condition of pursuing the appeal.

#CivilLaw, #CivPro, #AppellateProcedure, #LandlordTenant, #RealProperty


Gustafson v. Springfield, Inc.

An en banc panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued five opinions — three in support and two dissenting — and reversed the trial court’s order that sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections. This summary utilizes and links to Judge Kunselman’s opinion. Gustafson and his 14-year-old friend visited Joshua Hudec’s home. J.R.’s friend obtained Mr. Hudec’s semiautomatic handgun and removed the handgun’s magazine. He, therefore, believed it was unloaded and pulled the trigger. There was a bullet in the chamber, which struck and killed J.R. The Administrators of J.R.’s estate in their own right, and as surviving kin, sued the manufacturer and seller of the handgun. The Gustafsons asserted that, under the common law of Pennsylvania, the defendants were negligent and strictly liable for manufacturing and/or selling a defective firearm that caused their son’s death. They alleged a design defect because the gun lacked a safety feature to disable it from firing without the magazine attached. They also alleged inadequate warnings on the handgun to alert the user that a bullet could remain in the chamber after removing the magazine. The defendants filed preliminary objections asserting that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, restricting certain suits from being filed against gun manufacturers and sellers, immunized them. The Gustafsons responded that the PLCAA did not apply. In the alternative, they argued the Act is unconstitutional. Initially, a panel of the Superior Court unanimously reversed and declared PLCAA unconstitutional. The Court granted en banc review upon the defendants’ request and withdrew the panel opinion. A fractured en banc panel reversed the trial court’s order dismissing the Gustafsons’ case and remanded.

Read Judge Bender’s opinion in support of the per curiam order to reverse here.

Read Judge Dubow’s opinion in support of the per curiam order to reverse here.

Read Judge Olson’s dissenting opinion in which Judges Bowes and McCaffery joined here.

Read Judge Murray’s dissenting opinion in which Judges Bowes, Olson, and McCaffery joined here.

#CivilLaw, #PreliminaryObjections, #Guns


Funk v. Empfield

In this partition action, the Pennsylvania Superior Court quashed the appeal because the court lacked jurisdiction. Mrs. Empfield acquired her husband’s interest in a farm. Three years later, she conveyed her 50% interest to herself, Ms. Yatsko, and Ms. Greene, as joint tenants, with the right of survivorship. Ms. Funk then commenced this partition action against her mother and two sisters. The trial court ordered that the property be equitably partitioned, and the case proceeded before a master. Following an evidentiary hearing, the master submitted a report to the trial court on how he believed the property should be divided. However, the master did not divide the property into final, definitive purparts. And there were other issues that the master did not resolve. The trial court confirmed the master’s general scheme for partitioning the property and gave the master further instructions. Ms. Empfield, Yates, and Greene appealed. The Superior Court quashed the appeal because the appealed-from order was interlocutory.

#CivilLaw, #PropertyLaw, #Interlocutory


Smith v. Smith

In this custody case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order of a change in Child’s custody. Mother filed a petition for modification and custody mediation. The trial court awarded Mother with Child’s primary physical custody. Father appealed. In his first issue, Father claimed that the evidence at trial established that the court’s order was not in Child’s best interests. The Superior Court disagreed and found that the evidence of changed circumstances “amply” supported the trial court’s determination that awarding Mother primary physical custody was in Child’s best interest. In his last claim, Father argued the trial court abused its discretion because it failed to address all sixteen custody factors pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. § 5328(a). The Court ruled that the trial court “carefully analyzed the statutory factors with respect to custody” and found no error or abuse of discretion.

#FamilyLaw, #Custody


In re G.R.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the lower court’s order finding that the parents of a five-month-old child were the perpetrators of child abuse. According to the parents, the child rolled off a bed right before the parents took the child to stay with a grandparent for the weekend while they went on vacation. The parents claimed to have noticed something amiss with the child’s legs when they picked the kid up from the grandparent, so they took the child to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed the child with three acute leg fractures. A Family Court judge ruled that clear and convincing evidence existed to prove that the child was a victim of child abuse and that Mother and Father were the perpetrators of the abuse. The Superior Court ruled that, where the trial court deemed the Department of Human Service’s witnesses credible, Mother and Father did not testify, and no rebuttal witnesses were presented to offer countervailing testimony, the court was constrained to affirm the trial court’s determination.

#FamilyLaw, #ChildAbuse


Hicks v. Global Data Consultants, LLC

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed an order of the Court of Common Pleas that denied Plaintiff’s motion for a new trial after a bench trial. Plaintiff was an at-will employee of an IT company and part of his compensation was based on commissions for goods and services sold. He conceded that he could be terminated at any time. But he argued that he was still owed commissions for work completed before termination. He claimed that his employer’s commission schedules were enforceable contracts. He alleged breach of contract and violations of the Wage Payment and Collection Law. The Superior Court agreed that a reasonable person in Plaintiff’s position would understand that his continued performance would entitle him to earned commissions. But the Court held that Plaintiff acceded to certain commissions different from what his commission schedules would otherwise have dictated. As a result, Plaintiff could not claim an error in calculating those commissions. The Court also held that Plaintiff did not earn the commissions at the time of sale because the commission schedules stated they were achieved at the end of each month. The Court thus denied his request for a new trial.

#CivilLaw, #EmploymentLaw, #Contracts


Pa. Dept. of Transp. v. Foltz

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that “there is no basis in the Vehicle Code to credit the mandatory license suspension imposed as part of the voluntary ARD program against the mandatory license suspension imposed as a consequence of a DUI conviction.” The Bureau of Driver Licensing appealed the trial court’s order that directed DOT to apply 60 days of credit to Licensee’s suspension. The Commonwealth Court reversed and found that based on Department of Transportation, Bureau of Traffic Safety v. Yarbinitz, 508 A.2d 641 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1986), the trial court did not have the authority to grant Licensee an administrative credit.

#AdministrativeLaw, #ARD, #DUI, #DriverLicensing


Rose Tree Media Sch. Dist. v. Unemployment Compensation Bd. of Review

An en banc panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court was tasked with determining whether a school district worker was a year-round employee under Section 402.1 of the Unemployment Compensation Law. The employee was hired as a bus driver. Though the employee usually drove her bus during the summer, she did not do so during the summer of 2020 because COVID shut down everything that a bus would be needed for. The school district argued that the employee had worked for the school district during previous summers was not dispositive because the school district gave the employee reasonable assurance of employment for the following academic year. The school district further argued that one is not a year-round employee just because the district had made work available during the summer months in the past. The Commonwealth Court agreed and held that the employee is disqualified from receiving UC benefits under Section 402.1(2).

#AdministrativeLaw, #Unemployment


Collins v. Unemployment Comp. Rev. Bd

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that Claimant was eligible for Unemployment Compensation (UC) benefits because her side hustle did not establish that she was self-employed. Claimant filed for UC benefits based on a separation from her position as an audiologist. In a supplemental information form titled “Owner Business,” Claimant indicated that she opened a business that sold goods and services and advertised online. A UC Service Center found Claimant ineligible for benefits under Section 402(h) of the UC Law Claimant engaged in self-employment. A Referee held a hearing at which Claimant testified regarding her online business selling jewelry, her steps to begin that business, and her attempts to find a position as an audiologist. No representative from either Employer or the Department of Labor and Industry appeared in opposition to Claimant’s appeal. The Referee and Board affirmed. The Commonwealth Court reversed, ruling that there was no indication that Claimant’s online business was intended to replace audiology as her primary means of employment. Instead, it was merely a way of turning her hobbies into extra money by selling her crafts and jewelry at the online equivalent of a flea market.

#AdministrativeLaw, #Unemployment


Hi-Tech Flooring, Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Bd. (Santucci)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reviewed an order of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board that reversed an order of a Workers’ Compensation Judge. The Board and WCJ could not agree on whether an injured employee voluntarily left the workforce. The employer claimed that the worker had voluntarily left the workforce by accepting a pension and SSD benefits while receiving benefits for a work-related injury. The Court noted that there is no presumption of retirement arising from the fact that a claimant seeks or accepts a pension; instead, accepting a pension only creates a permissive inference of such. The Court ruled that the totality of the circumstances did not support the conclusion that the claimant retired from the entire workforce.

#AdministrativeLaw, #WorkersComp


Twin Lakes Util., Inc. v. Pa. Public Util Comm’n

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the order directing the sale of Twin Lakes Utility to Aqua Pennsylvania, Inc. pursuant to Section 529(a) of the Public Utility Code. Twin Lakes filed a petition under Section 529 of the Public Utility Code, requesting the Public Utility Commission to authorize the acquisition of Twin Lakes by a capable public utility. On September 17, 2020, the PUC concluded that Twin Lakes’ petition was appropriate and directed the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement to participate in the Section 529 proceeding. The PUC appointed Aqua to act as receiver of the water system during the pendency of the Section 529 proceeding. The PUC then issued its Final Order. Twin Lakes petitioned for the Commonwealth Court’s review. Aqua filed a cross-petition. The matters were consolidated for appeal. And the Court affirmed the Final Order.

#AdministrativeLaw, #Utilities


Hymms v. Pa. (Workers’ Compensation App. Bd.)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court refused to undo a compromise and release (C & R) of workers’ compensation claims under 77 P.S. § 1000.5. An employer and employee agreed on a release for the employee’s injuries, and a Workers’ Compensation Judge signed off on the agreement. But the employee appealed, claiming that both parties had incorrectly calculated the compensation. He further argued that the miscalculation represented a mutual or unilateral mistake. The Commonwealth Court noted that it is well established that once approved, a valid C & R agreement is final, conclusive, and binding on the parties. The Court found no evidence to support the employee’s claim and affirmed the C & R agreement.

#AdministrativeLaw, #WorkersComp


NEW JERSEY

Norman Intern’l, Inc. v. Admiral Ins. Co.

This case in the New Jersey Supreme Court concerned an exclusionary clause in a commercial general liability insurance policy issued by Admiral Insurance Company to Richfield Window Coverings, LLC. The clause states that the policy does not cover any liability “arising out of, related to, caused by, contributed to by, or in any way connected with . . . [a]ny operations or activities performed by or on behalf of any insured” in certain counties in New York, including Nassau County. Richfield sells window coverage products to national retailers like Home Depot and provides retailers with machines to cut blinds to meet the specifications of the retailers’ customers. Ms. Lorito, an employee of a Home Depot located in Nassau County, was injured while operating the blind cutting machine. She and her husband filed a civil action against Richfield, asserting claims for product liability, breach of warranty, and loss of spousal services. Admiral denied any obligation to defend or indemnify, arguing the claims were not covered under the policy based on the Designated New York Counties Exclusion. Richfield filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to compel Admiral to defend it in the Lorito case and, if necessary, indemnify it against any monetary damages awarded to the plaintiffs. The Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of Admiral. The Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the insurance policy’s broad and unambiguous language made clear that a causal relationship was not required for the exclusionary clause to apply; instead, any claim “in any way connected with” the insured’s operations or activities in a county identified in the exclusionary clause was not covered. Richfield’s operations in an excluded county were alleged to be connected with the injuries for which recovery is sought. Thus, the exclusion applied, and Admiral had no duty to defend the claim.

#CivilLaw, #InsuranceDispute, #PersonalInjury


Fulton Bank of N.J. v. Casa Eleganza, LLC

The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed an order of the Chancery Division dealing with a mortgage foreclosure action for a property subject to a homeowners’ association. The issue was whether the bank was subject to HOA fees. The bank issued its mortgage before the HOA agreement went into effect. Later, the bank acquired title to the property at a sheriff’s sale after a mortgage foreclosure. And eventually the bank sold the property to a third party. But the HOA then demanded payment of the HOA fees for the time in which the bank owned the property. The bank argued that it was not subject to the HOA fees because its mortgage predated the HOA. The Chancery Court and the Appellate disagreed. The Appellate Division ruled that the HOA Declaration constituted an equitable servitude that follows the land even if the mortgage was filed first.

#CivilLaw, #RealProperty, #Foreclosure


3RD CIRCUIT

France v. Bernstein

“SHOW ME THE MONEYYYYYYYYY!” Jerry Maguire. The Third Circuit compared this case involving sports agents to a Tom Cruise flick. Here, two agents fought over Bernstein’s claim that France improperly organized a money-making event for a football player who was one of Bernstein’s clients, all to induce that player to fire Bernstein and hire France. The matter went to arbitration, and, in pre-hearing discovery, France denied possessing any documents about the event or involvement in the event. But it was determined that France lied to Bernstein and the arbitrator, though the untruths were not uncovered until after the arbitration was decided in France’s favor. Bernstein moved to vacate the award. The District Court denied the motion and confirmed the arbitration award. Bernstein appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed. The Court recognized “the limited circumstances that justify vacating an arbitration award” but found such circumstance in this case: the award was procured by fraud.

#CivilLaw, #Arbitration, #Fraud


Bibbs v. Trans Union LLC

The Third Circuit held that Trans Union did not transgress the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by including a negative pay status notation on Appellants’ credit reports. This consolidated matter involved three Appellants. Each borrowed student loans but stopped paying them back. Their respective lenders closed the accounts and transferred them. Once the loans were transferred, the account balances immediately went to zero, and all payment obligations were transferred. Nonetheless, each Appellant’s credit report contained the same negative pay status notation: “Account 120 Days Past Due Date.” Appellants each filed complaints against Trans Union. The complaints alleged violations of the FCRA against Trans Union resulting from its issuing credit reports that contained inaccurate or misleading information about Appellants and its refusal to revise its reports in response to their complaints. Trans Union filed motions for judgment on the pleadings. The district courts granted the motions, and the Third Circuit affirmed. There were three issues: (1) whether the district courts erred in applying the “reasonable creditor” standard; (2) whether Trans Union’s credit reports for Appellants are accurate or misleading under the “maximum possible accuracy” requirement of § 1681e(b) of the FCRA; and (3) whether the district courts erred in dismissing Appellants’ cases without ordering discovery. The Third Circuit held that (1) the district courts applied the correct standard under the FCRA; (2) the credit reports were accurate under the FCRA; and (3) “because the credit reports were accurate under § 1681e(b) as a matter of law, discovery was not necessary.”

#CivilLaw, #FCRA, #JudgmentOnThePleadings


Coello v. Dileo

The Third Circuit had to decide when the clock started running. The plaintiff was convicted of harassment in 2007. Over a decade later, the conviction was overturned. She filed suit to recover for various abuses suffered during her criminal proceedings. The question was whether the clock for the statute of limitations purposes began running: when she was initially sentenced or when her conviction was overturned. Relying on Heck v. Humphrey, the Third Circuit held that the clock started running when the conviction was overturned. Though unrelated to the Court’s holding, the case presents a scintillating look at the utter dysfunction that is the New Jersey Municipal Court system. In one vignette, the Court recounted that the Municipal Court judge who presided over Plaintiff’s 2007 case was “alleged to have tried two criminal defendants without allowing them defense counsel and without a municipal prosecutor present.”

#CivilLaw, #StatuteOfLimitations


Thompson v. De. Dep’t of Svs. for Child., Youth and Their Families

The issue before the Third Circuit was whether probationary employees working for the State of Delaware have a constitutionally protected property right in continued employment or in the retention of a particular position or rank for the purpose of federal procedural due process. Thompson brought claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her right to due process and under state law against the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families (“DSCYF”) and several individual defendants after Thompson was demoted and eventually terminated from DSCYF. The District Court dismissed Thompson’s federal procedural due process claims on the ground that, as a former probationary employee at DSCYF, Thompson did not have a protected property interest in her employment. The District Court also dismissed Thompson’s claim brought pursuant to the Delaware Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (“WPA”) on the ground that the Eleventh Amendment precluded the claim. Thompson appealed. The Third Circuit affirmed, holding that Delaware state probationary employees do not have a constitutionally protected property right in continued employment or in the retention of a particular position or rank for the purpose of federal procedural due process. Additionally, the Court held that the District Court correctly dismissed Thompson’s WPA claim because the WPA does not reveal a clear intention by the State of Delaware to subject itself to suit in federal court.

#CivilLaw, #EmploymentLaw, #DueProcess


Nichino America, Inc. v. Valent U.S.A. LLC

The Third Circuit waded into the “confusing” waters of injunctions against allegedly infringing trademarks. Here, the two parties sell pesticides for farming. One sells “CENTUAR” and the other sells “SENSTAR.” One sued the other for trademark infringement and asked for a preliminary injunction. This suit was one of the first to apply the newly effective Trademark Modernization Act of 2020. The District Court employed the “Lapp factors,” the Third Circuit’s nearly forty-year-old, ten-part, yet non-exhaustive inquiry that guides analysis of likely confusion. Based on those factors, the lower court denied the injunction, and the plaintiff appealed. The Third Circuit affirmed. The Court relied heavily on Federal Rule of Evidence 301, which governs presumptions generally in civil cases. 

#CivilLaw, #Trademark


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