Opinion Summaries for the

Welcome to Sullivan|Simon’s summaries of last week’s precedential appellate decisions from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey state courts, as well as the Third Circuit. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s opinion.


Commonwealth v. Riley (Criminal Law, Sufficiency of the Evidence)

Defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for his conviction of receiving stolen property. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed and held that “a totality of the circumstances could support an inference that Riley believed the gun was probably stolen since it was used in an illegal exchange for drugs. When a firearm is bartered for narcotics, the seller of narcotics has good reason to believe the firearm is stolen.”

Commonwealth v. Williams (Criminal Law, Sufficiency)

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed defendant’s convictions for PWID and K&I. The Court concluded that although the witness’s testimony was equivocal and contradictory about where the police found the drugs, the jury was “free to assess the credibility and weight to be assigned to this testimony and believe all, part, or none of it regardless the equivocation.”

Edenfield v. ECM Energy Svs., Inc. (Civil Law, Petition to Compel Inspection of Corporate Records)

The ​​Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order that denied a petition to compel inspection of two corporations’ books and records. The trial court concluded correctly that Plaintiff lacked standing to compel the production of one corporation’s records pursuant to 15 Pa.C.S. § 1508. And concerning documents that the other corporation stored virtually, the trial court did not err in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to compel access because that corporation was not incorporated in Pennsylvania, did not keep a principal place of business in Pennsylvania, and was not registered to conduct business in Pennsylvania.

Toth v. Toth (Corporations, Operating Agreement)

In these consolidated appeals, appellants challenged several of the lower court’s orders. First, The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the order granting partial summary judgment and ruled that Appellants lacked sufficient voting interests to amend an Operating Agreement. Next, the lower court concluded correctly that the 2012 Operating Agreement was the governing document. Lastly, the Superior Court ruled that the lower “court’s decision to dissolve the company was premature because the 2012 Operating Agreement unambiguously mandates binding mediation, which has not yet occurred.”

Schluth v. Krishavtar, Inc. (Deficiency Judgment Act, Jurisdiction)

The issue in these consolidated appeals concerned a trial court’s jurisdiction while an appeal is pending within the context of the Deficiency Judgment Act. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the trial court lacked the jurisdiction to deny Appellants’ petitions to mark judgments satisfied. When the petitions were filed, Appellants had appeals pending, challenging a foreclosure judgment. As a result, the trial court was precluded from considering deficiency judgment proceedings.

Cicero v. Pa. Pub. Util. Comm’n (Administrative Law, Certificate of Public Convenience)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed the PUC’s order that gave Aqua a certificate of public convenience. The PUC erred in its determination that granting the certificate would provide affirmative public benefits that outweighed the potential harms, as required by 66 Pa.C.S. §§ 1102 and 1103.

Hollis v. C&R Laundry Svs. LLC (Employment Law)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the Workers’ Compensation Judge’s decision that granted Claimant’s Claim Petition for a closed period and then terminated benefits. Claimant’s allegation of “left rotator cuff pathology” was not well-pled, and Claimant fully recovered from this work-related injury. 

The Hershey Co. v. Woodhouse (Unemployment Compensation, Work-Related Injury)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that the WCJ and the Board erred as a matter of law by concluding that Claimant provided timely constructive notice pursuant to Section 311 of the WC Act that his injury was work-related. “Viewing the totality of these communications, substantial evidence does not support the WCJ’s conclusion that Claimant communicated to Employer that his foot surgery was work-related or that he suspected a work-related injury before the end of the 120-day notice period.”

Weiler v. Stroud Twp. Zoning Hearing Bd (Administrative Law, Zoning)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the Stroud Township Zoning Hearing Board’s determination to uphold an enforcement notice and prevent Petitioner from holding wedding ceremonies on her property.

Marshall v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth. (Administrative Law, Sovereign Immunity)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court’s orders denying New Jersey Transit’s preliminary objections and motion for judgment on the pleadings. The Court ruled that NJT properly invoked sovereign immunity in its preliminary objections, answer, and motion for judgment on the pleadings.


State v. Watson (Criminal Law, First-time In-Court IDs)

In this novella-sized opinion spanning 70 pages, a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court resolved three issues: (1) the propriety of “first-time in-court identifications” — that is, in-court identifications that are not preceded by a successful out-of-court identification; (2) the extent to which investigators may narrate video recordings; (3) the lead detective testified at trial about consulting with other law enforcement agencies regarding defendant, and the propriety of that testimony under the Confrontation Clause. The Court held that first-time in-court identifications may only be conducted when there is good reason for them and established certain practices that must be observed in connection with in-court identifications. (2) The evidence rules do not allow for continuous, running commentary on video evidence by someone who has merely studied a recording. The Court identified safeguards to underscore the limited use of narration evidence and ruled that a party intending to present narration evidence should provide opposing counsel with a written summary of the proposed testimony before trial. (3) The testimony about consultation with other law enforcement agencies violated defendant’s right to confrontation.

State v. Burney (Criminal Law, Cell Site Location Information, Identification)

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed defendant’s robbery conviction because the trial court committed two evidentiary errors. First, the court erroneously admitted an expert’s testimony about GPS location because the testimony was “unsupported by any factual evidence or other data.” Second, pursuant to the Watson decision (above), the trial court erred in admitting an in-court identification because the circumstances of the identification “were highly suggestive, and therefore, the identification should have been excluded.” 

State v. Allen (Criminal Law, Police Narration of a Video)

The New Jersey Supreme Court applied the Watson decision (above) and ruled that the trial court did not err in permitting a detective to narrate video evidence. The trial court properly allowed the detective to testify about how he used the surveillance video to guide his investigation. And it was harmless error to allow the detective to opine that the footage showed defendant turning and firing his weapon.

Williams v. NJ State Parole Bd (Criminal Law, Conditions of Parole)

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the New Jersey State Parole Board cannot mandate participation in a residential treatment program for inmates administratively paroled under the Earn Your Way Out Act.

Neuwirth v. NJ (Defamation, Motion to Dismiss)

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the order denying the State of New Jersey and Governor Philip D. Murphy’s motion to dismiss a defamation claim. The Court ruled that plaintiff did not adequately plead actual malice.

Musconetong Watershed Ass’n v. NJ Dep’t Env’t Prot. (Administrative Law, EWnvironmental Law)

The New Jersey Appellate Division held that the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) flood hazard area applicability (FHA) determination became a final agency decision subject to appeal when the DEP denied Plaintiff’s request for an adjudicatory hearing to challenge the FHA determination. This decision reversed a previous opinion issued by a two-judge panel of the Court.


United States v. Kramer (4th Amendment, Private Search)

Defendant appealed his convictions of sexual exploitation of a minor and attempted witness tampering, challenging the denial of his suppression motion. The Third Circuit affirmed, concluding that Defendant’s wife conducted a private search of his cell phone and voluntarily gave the evidence to the police. Therefore, the 4th Amendment was not implicated.

United States v. Shaknitz (Sentencing, No Contact Order)

Appellant filed an unopposed Motion for Summary Remand based on the Third Circuit’s recent decision in United States v. Santos Diaz. Here, the Court ruled that the District Court’s oral imposition of a telephone-only condition conflicted with the holding in Diaz that a sentencing court lacks “inherent authority to impose a no-contact order during [a defendant’s] incarceration term.”

Davis v. Wigen (Prison Litigation, Religious Freedom Restoration Act)

Plaintiff-Appellants are a former federal inmate and his fiancée. He served four years of his sentence at Moshannon Valley Correctional Center. During that time, he submitted a request to the prison that he be permitted to marry his fiancee. Prison officials denied the request. The District Court denied his claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, determining that Plaintiffs failed to allege that Defendants pressured Plaintiffs to either refrain from conduct that their faith prescribed or participate in conduct that their faith prohibited. The Third Circuit reversed, clarifying that “RFRA extends to non-mandatory religious conduct and expression, i.e., conduct or expression not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Plaintiffs’ marriage fell within that category.

Clark v. United States (Habeas Corpus, Appealing a District Court’s Choice of Remedy)

In this issue of first impression, the Third Circuit held that a certificate of appealability is required for a prisoner in federal custody to appeal a district court’s choice of remedy in a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 proceeding. 

Prater v. Dep’t of Corr. (Prison Litigation, Jurisdiction)

These three consolidated appeals involved the same issue: whether the magistrate judges acted within the scope of their statutorily granted jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 636. The solution turned on the parties’ consent. The Third Circuit dismissed the first case for lack of jurisdiction because all parties did not consent and, therefore, the magistrate judge lacked the power to dismiss the case involuntarily. By contrast, the magistrate judges were empowered to enter summary judgment in the other cases because all parties either expressly or impliedly consented. Therefore, the Third Circuit had jurisdiction and affirmed summary judgment based on plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Utility Workers United Ass’n v. Utility Workers’ Union of America (Employment Law, Unions)

These appeals involve a dispute between labor unions. The controversy began when Local 537 sought to disaffiliate. UWUA learned of Local 537’s planned disaffiliation vote and imposed a trusteeship the day most Local 537 members voted to form a new union. UWUA obtained a preliminary injunction to enforce its trusteeship over Local 537 and keep Local 537’s assets. The new union then brought a civil action to recover those assets. The District Court granted the new union summary judgment and equitable relief but denied its request for attorneys’ fees. Both parties appealed, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

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