Opinion Summaries for the

Below are summaries of the precedential appellate decisions from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Third Circuit for the week of July 18. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s entire opinion.


Commonwealth v. Pownall

Ryan Pownall, a (former) Philadelphia Police Officer, is charged with shooting and killing an individual while on duty as a police officer. Anticipating Pownall might pursue at trial a peace officer justification defense under 18 Pa.C.S. § 508, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (“DAO”) filed a pretrial motion in limine seeking to preclude the trial court from using Suggested Standard Jury Instruction (Crim) § 9.508B, which essentially tracks Section 508.1  “The DAO argued that since the justification statute supposedly violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner, so too must the standard jury instruction based on the statute.” The trial court disagreed. The DAO filed an appeal, which the Superior Court quashed as improper. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the trial court’s order was not appealable under either Pa.R.A.P. 311(d) or 313(b)

#CriminalLaw, #SelfDefense, #JuryInstructions, #Interlocutory

Commonwealth v. Jones-Williams

Justice Mundy succinctly introduced this case in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court: “This appeal concerns the warrantless seizure of blood after it had already been drawn and preserved by hospital personnel.” Hospital staff drew the defendant’s blood after he was involved in a collision between his car and a train. Law enforcement completed “paperwork” that caused hospital staff to transport the blood samples to a lab which determined that the defendant had marijuana in his system. Defendant moved to suppress that evidence, arguing that law enforcement needed a warrant to seize that blood sample. The trial court denied the suppression motion. The Superior Court disagreed. The Supreme Court analyzed the case under the exigency exception to the warrant requirement and the state’s implied consent law under 75 Pa.C.S. § 3755. The Court held that the exigency exception did not apply. Next, it ruled that an objective analysis of the evidence revealed that the record was silent about why the hospital drew the defendant’s blood. As such, the Commonwealth did not comply with the statute and could not defend the warrantless seizure under that theory. The Court refused to discuss whether Section 3755 is constitutional, leaving that analysis for another term.

Read Justice Wecht’s concurring and dissenting opinion here.

#CriminalLaw, #DUI, #BloodDraw, #Search&Seizure

Khalil v. Williams

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court revisited its standard on legal malpractice actions and its seminal case of Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod & Gutnick. In Muhammad, the Court “held that a plaintiff may not sue his attorney based on the adequacy of a settlement to which the plaintiff agreed unless the plaintiff alleges the settlement was the result of fraud.” The instant case began when water from a neighbor’s condominium leaked into the plaintiff’s unit, causing damage. Two lawsuits arose: a suit regarding the plaintiff’s unpaid condo fees and one involving damage to the plaintiff’s condo. The plaintiff retained the defendants as counsel, who worked to settle both cases. The plaintiff was not happy with the results and sued for malpractice. Her claims fell into two categories. First, she claimed that the defendants allowed her to enter into a settlement on one case that had adverse implications on the other. Second, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants fraudulently induced her to enter into a settlement agreement in the condo damages case. This called into question the “Muhammad exception,” which generally “does not bar a plaintiff’s action against his attorney when the action does not challenge the amount of a settlement but is based on the attorney’s alleged failure to correctly advise the plaintiff regarding the law impacting a settlement.” Here, the Court held that the plaintiff’s claims based on fraud and negligence could fall within that exception and thus survive summary judgment.

Read Justice Wecht’s concurring opinion here. Read Justice Mundy’s concurring opinion here.

#CivilLaw, #LegalMalpractice

Obara Realty Group, LLC. v. Atlas Real Estate Inv., LLC

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the portion of the trial court’s order that denied Defendant Atlas’s petition to open and/or strike the judgment of confession. And the Court vacated the part of the order that denied Defendant Gorra’s petition for costs and fees. These consolidated appeals stemmed from Obara Realty Group’s confession of judgment against Atlas Real Estate Investments, LLC and Robert Gorra. Atlas executed a Term Note for the principal sum of $121,284, with Obara as the lender, and repayment was due no later than the maturation date of July 31, 2021. The loan was associated with a plan to rehabilitate and sell real property in Philadelphia. Mr. Gorra signed the Term Note and a Guaranty of Payment on behalf of Atlas. Obara made a partial disbursement to Atlas for $46,504. Atlas did not make any repayment when the Term Note matured, and Obara filed a complaint in confession of judgment against Atlas and Mr. Gorra for the amount disbursed plus interest and attorney’s fees. Obara subsequently filed a praecipe to vacate the judgment against Mr. Gorra. Thereafter, Atlas and Mr. Gorra filed a joint petition. Atlas sought to open and/or strike the judgment. Mr. Gorra sought reimbursement of costs and fees for being incorrectly identified as a defendant in the confession of judgment action. The trial court denied Atlas’s petition and Gorra’s motion. The Superior Court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Atlas’s petition. However, the trial court erred in denying Mr. Gorra relief outright and sending him instead to the Office of Judicial Records to seek relief because he properly petitioned the trial court for costs and reasonable attorney fees after being misidentified as a debtor in a confessed judgment action, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 2737.1.

#CivilLaw, #Costs, #DefaultJudgment, #StatutoryInterpretation

Hannis v. Raymond

In this child custody dispute, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that the trial court erred as a matter of law when it determined that the grandparents failed to establish standing when both of the child’s adoptive parents were deceased. The custody battle involved the child’s grandparents and great aunt. The trial court concluded that the grandparents did not establish standing under 23 Pa.C.S. § 5324(3) or (4). The Superior Court vacated the trial court’s order, holding that “the parent’s choice of guardian does not bar other qualified individuals from seeking custody, and the appointment of a guardian has no effect on standing to file custody. . . . Furthermore a parent cannot posthumously exercise care and control of a child, and a third-party’s in loco parentis status does not preclude another third-party from seeking custody under Section 5324(4).”

#FamilyLaw, #Custody, #StatutoryInterpretation

Real Alternatives v. Dep’t of Hum. Serv. and Equity Forward (Off. of Open Rec.)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court dealt with a request under the Right to Know Law that sought documents related to a grant from the state’s Department of Human Services to a non-profit agency for it to provide “pro-life services” to Pennsylvanians. The agency “primarily provides core services consisting of information and counseling that promote childbirth instead of abortion.” The requester sought two categories of documents. First, the requester sought program development and advancement agreements. And second, it sought documents related to the agency’s expenditures under the grant. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the OOR’s determination that the development and advancement agreements were not in furtherance of the agency’s work with DHS under the grant, and thus those records were not subject to disclosure. But the expenditure documentation was subject to access as records directly related to the agency’s performance of a governmental function under the grant.

#AdminLaw, #RTKL, #OpenRecords

In re Nomination Petition of Jordan

This Supreme Court opinion explained the Court’s earlier per curium order, which directed the Secretary of the Commonwealth to remove a candidate’s name from the election ballot because the candidate would not have been an inhabitant of the legislative district for at least one year preceding the general election. Because of redistricting and the candidate moving, he was not a resident of the former or current legislative district for the requisite year needed to qualify for the ballot. The candidate claimed that he qualified because he lived in the old district for more than one year, and his new home was in the district at is now drawn. The Court ruled that the candidate was constitutionally ineligible to hold office because he did not reside in the newly-drawn district for at least one year before the general election.

Read Justice Brobson’s dissenting opinion here.

#AdministrativeLaw, #ElectionLaw


Crystal Point Condo. Ass’n, Inc. v. Kinsale Ins. Co.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff, which obtained default judgments against two contractors for construction defect claims, may assert claims under the Direct Action Statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-2, against the company that insured those contractors. Crystal Point managed the common elements of a building. After discovering construction defects in the building, Crystal Point filed an action against the two contractors that it contended were responsible. Crystal Point sought and obtained default judgments and writs of execution against the contractors. Crystal Point then filed a declaratory judgment action against Kinsale Insurance Co., alleging that it was entitled to recover the amounts owed by the contractors under the insurance policies. Kinsale asserted that Crystal Point’s claims were subject to binding arbitration. The trial court agreed and granted Kinsale’s motion to enforce arbitration. The Supreme Court ruled that Crystal Point may assert direct claims against Kinsale under the Direct Action Statute. However, Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale were derivative claims and subject to the terms of the insurance policies at issue. And those policies included the provision mandating binding arbitration of disputes between Kinsale and its insureds.

#CivilLaw, #InsuranceDispute

Cerciello v. Salerno Duane, Inc.

In this appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division dealt with the intersection of class actions and arbitration provisions. Plaintiff bought a used car from Defendant used-car dealership. As part of the sales contract, Plaintiff agreed to an arbitration provision and a waiver of her right to pursue a class action. The arbitration agreement mandated that Defendant pay the costs of arbitration. Plaintiff initiated arbitration based on allegations regarding title and registration fees. Defendant did not pay the required fees, so the arbitration was closed without a resolution. Plaintiff then filed a putative class action, and Defendant filed a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration. The Appellate Division ruled that Defendant could not compel arbitration after failing to pay the fees, but Defendant could still enforce the class-action waiver.

#CivilLaw, #ClassAction, #Arbitration


Bedrosian v. United States, Dep’t of Treasury, Internal Revenue Serv.

The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s finding that Bedrosian willfully failed to disclose substantial wealth stashed in Swiss banks accounts. Under the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 U.S.C. § 5311, certain individuals with foreign financial interests must file annual disclosures with the U.S. Treasury Department. Penalties are tiered. The penalty is capped at $10,000 if the individual mistakenly omitted the information, but the fine can be more if the conduct was willful. The District Court found Bedrosian’s omission was willful and fined him nearly $1 million. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s verdict and fine. Though the Government failed to prove that the fine was no more than half of the total amount omitted — the statutory maximum fine — the Third Circuit held that Bedrosian admitted this fact during opening statements and thus relieved the Government of its burden of proof.


Avenatti v. FOX News Network, LLC

The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s order denying a motion for remand. Avenatti sued FOX News in Delaware state court, alleging the network defamed him. FOX News removed the case to federal court, asserting that there was complete diversity among the parties. Avenatti filed an amended complaint, which differed in two respects: first, it named Mr. Hunt, a FOX reporter and California resident, as a Defendant; and second, it alleged that Mr. Hunt had published an article online about Avenatti’s arrest, which included the same defamatory accusations previously attributed to the other Defendants. Avenatti then moved to remand the case to state court, arguing that his addition of Mr. Hunt—who shared Avenatti’s California citizenship—had destroyed diversity, thus depriving the Court of subject matter jurisdiction. The District Court denied remand, concluding that it had discretionary authority under Rule 21 to drop Mr. Hunt from the litigation and restore complete diversity. Avenatti appealed, and the Third Circuit affirmed, ruling that the District Court correctly concluded that (1) Mr. Hunt was a dispensable party under Rule 19; and (2) that dropping him would not be prejudicial.

#CivilLaw, #CivilProcedure, #Diversity

Adam v. Barone

The Third Circuit introduced this case on standing by summing up the facts: “Cindy Adam was charged nearly $100 for what she believed were free samples of beauty products. After complaining about the charge, she was offered the chance to return the items so that she might obtain a refund. Adam refused and eventually filed this lawsuit.” It turned out that she had to pay if she kept the “free” samples. She filed a putative class action, and the District Court dismissed her complaint because Ms. Adam rejected the refund offer. Thus, the issue was moot. The Third Circuit reversed and reinstated the complaint. It noted the three elements to standing: (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Here, the Court held that Ms. Adam sufficiently pled each element.

#CivilLaw, #Standing, #Mootness, #ClassAction

Kajmowicz v. Whitaker

The Third Circuit considered the Vacancies Reform Act, which governs the order of succession for acting officials to fill vacant Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed offices temporarily. At issue was President Trump’s decision to appoint Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General after Jeff Sessions left the position. The plaintiff alleged that Whitaker’s unlawful service as Acting Attorney General rendered a rule he promulgated invalid. The Third Circuit ruled that the rule may stand even if Whitaker served in violation of the Vacancies Reform Act or the Appointments Clause because Attorney General William Barr ratified it.


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