Below are summaries of the precedential appellate decisions from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Third Circuit for the week of June 27. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s entire opinion.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a challenge to an allegedly vindictive sentence goes to the legality, not the discretionary aspects of the sentence. The defendant was convicted of attempted indecent assault and additional charges. He successfully challenged some of the charges on collateral review and found himself back before the trial court for resentencing. At his original sentencing hearing, the Commonwealth did not seek a mandatory minimum for attempted indecent assault. But at the resentencing, the Commonwealth successfully pursued the mandatory minimum, drastically increasing the defendant’s sentence.
#CriminalLaw, #Sentencing, #DueProcess
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court’s order awarding a new trial. The defendant filed a PCRA petition, asserting that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call an expert on eyewitness identification. The Court based its decision on Commonwealth v. Walker and ruled that trial counsel was ineffective. Walker reversed Pennsylvania’s evidentiary prohibition of expert testimony about eyewitness identification and held that such testimony is admissible at the trial court’s discretion.
#CriminalLaw, #PCRA, #IneffectiveAssistance, #Identification, #ExpertTestimony
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions of four traffic offenses, including failure to carry and exhibit driver’s license on demand and registration card to be signed and exhibited on demand. State police stopped the defendant for speeding. When the trooper asked for his license and registration, the defendant demanded to speak to a lawyer, chastised the trooper for not reading Miranda warnings, refused to identify himself, refused to provide his license, registration and insurance, and otherwise engaged in what the Superior Court called “belligerent and combative behavior.” The Court affirmed the convictions despite the fact that the defendant provided his license and registration after 25 minutes of obnoxious behavior and repeated threats from multiple troopers that they would bring him to the barracks to ID him if he weren’t cooperative.
#CriminalLaw, #Sufficiency, #MVC
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed an order that denied the claimant’s Petition to Reinstate Compensation Benefits pursuant to the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The primary issue was the cause of the claimant’s termination. He argued that he was terminated because of a work injury and related medical restrictions. The employer asserted that the claimant was not completing his paperwork correctly and was concerned that this could later result in a failed safety audit. The Commonwealth Court rejected numerous credibility and procedural attacks on the ruling, holding that competent evidence supported the conclusion that the claimant was fired for performance issues and not because of limitations resulting from his injury.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions for unlawfully manufacturing a controlled substance (MCS) and criminal conspiracy. The defendant argued the trial court erred in denying his suppression motion because the police failed to obtain a search warrant or court order to search the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEX), a web-based database enabling retailers to enter sales data pursuant to the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006. The Court ruled that the protections of either the Fourth Amendment or Article I, § 8 did not apply because the defendant did not have a protected privacy interest in the NPLEX search results. The Court also disagreed with the defendant’s claims about the evidence’s sufficiency and weight.
#CriminalLaw, #Suppression, #4thAmendment, Sufficiency, #WeightoftheEvidence
The Superior Court weighed in on an arbitration dispute after a messy breakup between a law firm and a shareholder. The shareholder had a secret side hustle as the Chief Compliance Officer with one of the firm’s clients. And the shareholder regularly did legal work, utilizing a firm associate, for the client without billing for the services rendered. The shareholder left the firm to work full-time as Chief Compliance Officer. The firm sued. And while the shareholder agreement mandated all disputes be resolved by arbitration, the separate employment agreement contained no such clause. The Superior Court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it compelled arbitration on the grounds for relief under the shareholder agreement but permitted the causes of action under the employment agreement to proceed through the courts. The Court also ruled that 42 Pa.C.S. § 7304(d) does not authorize a stay of arbitration pending the outcome of court action on severable, non-arbitrable issues.
#CivilLaw, #Arbitration, #Stay
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the order dismissing this appeal from the Workers’ Compensation (WC) Judge’s decision that granted in part Claimant’s Petition for WC Benefits for a closed period and granted Americold Logistics LLC’s Petition to Terminate WC Benefits. The issue was whether Claimant’s appeal was timely. The Court ruled that because Claimant improperly mailed his appeal to the WCJ, instead of the WC Appeal Board, the Board received Claimant’s appeal more than one month after its due date. Accordingly, the Board correctly dismissed Claimant’s appeal as untimely.
#AdministrativeLaw, #Timeliness, #WorkersComp
In this rare Section 1983 suit litigated in state court, the Commonwealth Court heard an appeal from a prisoner confined to the disciplinary segregation unit at the Bucks County Jail. The prisoner appealed after the lower court sustained the County’s preliminary objections and dismissed the entire complaint with prejudice. The Commonwealth Court reversed and ruled that the prisoner had made out claims of (1) First Amendment retaliation and failure to intervene, (2) excessive force, (3) the conditions of confinement included inadequate exercise, (4) due process claims, and (5) tort claims. The Court ruled that the prisoner’s complaint failed to make out numerous other claims.
#CivilLaw, #PrisonerLitigation, #1983
The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a critical constitutional ruling that will impact many cases. The Court held that N.J.S.A. 39:3-75 does not prohibit window tinting on cars. More importantly, the Court held that, consistent with the language of N.J.S.A. 39:3-74, reasonable and articulable suspicion of a tinted windows violation arises only when a vehicle’s front windshield or front side windows are so darkly tinted that police cannot clearly see people or articles within the car. Along with State v. Carter, the New Jersey Supreme Court now has struck down two of the most common reasons given for the police’s car stops.
#CriminalLaw, #CarStop, #Search&Seizure, #4thAmendment
The New Jersey Appellate Division issued a critical decision regarding the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The Court relied on State v. Witt and upheld the order suppressing the evidence recovered from the defendant’s vehicle after a warrantless search. Police surveilled the defendant’s truck for more than an hour before pulling him over. When the officers did not observe anything criminal, they called for a K-9. The dog alerted for the presence of narcotics. Officers recovered drugs and a gun when they searched the vehicle without a warrant. The trial court granted the defendant’s suppression motion. The Appellate Division found that when the officers’ sensory perceptions failed to confirm their suspicions of drug activity following the car stop, police summoned the K-9 unit to develop probable cause. That investigative tool failed under Witt because using the K-9 unit under the circumstances presented did not result in the spontaneous and unforeseeable development of probable cause; it was simply another step in the search for drugs that caused the stop in the first place. Thus, when probable cause sufficient to support a search of the vehicle developed, police were required to seek a warrant at that juncture.
#CriminalLaw, #Suppression, #FourthAmendment, #CarStop, #AutomobileException
The New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether it was harmful error to allow a jury to hear the portion of the defendant’s statement to the police after he invoked his right to counsel. The Court also considered remarks made during the prosecutor’s summation that the invocation was a sign of guilt. The Court remanded the case for a new trial. The Court held that the interrogation should have stopped once the defendant invoked his right to counsel. Not only did the interrogation continue, but during the questioning, the detective strongly suggested that the defendant would give them the information they sought if he were truly innocent. Allowing that entire exchange to be played for the jury was harmful error. Additionally, the error was compounded when the prosecutor commented on the defendant’s statement that should have never been before the jury in the first place.
The New Jersey Supreme Court issued two critical rulings in this asbestos-mesothelioma matter. First, the Court held that an asbestos manufacturer or supplier that places inadequate warnings on asbestos bags used in the workplace has breached its duty to the worker, regardless of whether it provided the employer with the correct information. Second, the Court ruled that the trial court sufficiently guided the jury with a modified version of the Model Jury Charge on proximate cause, even though the charge was not tailored to track the holding in Sholtis v. American Cyanamid Co.
#CivilLaw, #Asbestos, #ProximateCause, #Causation, #JuryInstruction
The Third Circuit affirmed the defendant’s conviction of engaging in a child exploitation enterprise. The defendant’s proposed jury instructions contended, and he argued on appeal, that the statute is better read to require each separate predicate offense to be committed in concert with three or more other persons. The District Court disagreed, holding that the “in concert” requirement is best read to refer to the series of predicate offenses rather than each individually. The Third Circuit affirmed. The statute specifies that the defendant committed “those offenses in concert with three or more other persons.” The Court ruled that absence of the word “each”—or a functionally equivalent word—immediately before “in concert with three or more persons” confirms that the “three or more persons” may be summed by considering the predicate felony violations together.
#CriminalLaw, JuryInstructions, #StatutoryInterpretation
The Third Circuit confronted an issue it had avoided: retroactive application of the First Step Act. The defendant was convicted and sentenced before the Act was passed. He then successfully challenged his sentence on appeal. When he appeared for resentencing, the Act had passed. And it mattered. Under the pre-Act sentencing scheme, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of fifty-five years; under the Act’s provisions, his exposure was a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years. Section 403(b) of the Act states that it “shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of the Act if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.” The Third Circuit noted that “the statute plausibly could be read either way.” As a result, the Court reasoned that it was ambiguous. The Court interpreted “it broadly to allow the Act’s provisions to apply to a defendant whose pre-Act-unconstitutional sentence is vacated after the Act’s enactment.” Thus, the defendant received forty years of his life back.
#CriminalLaw, #Sentencing, #FirstStepAct
The Third Circuit affirmed the defendant’s sentence for her role in illegally distributing prescription painkillers. The defendant disputed the initial Guidelines range for her imprisonment. She argued that the District Court erred by applying a four-point increase for the organizer-leader enhancement. She also contended that the District Court should have compelled the government to move for a one-point reduction for acceptance of responsibility. The Court ruled that the defendant qualified as an organizer under U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1(a) because her efforts gave functional structure to a coordinated opiate distribution scheme that involved at least five participants. Next, the Court held that Amendment 775, which added a sentence to Application Note 6 that limited the government’s discretion for withholding a § 3E1.1 motion, “has no legal force in this Circuit.” Furthermore, the defendant had “no evidence, much less evidence amounting to a substantial threshold showing, that the government acted with an unconstitutional motive in withholding a § 3E1.1(b) motion.”
#CriminalLaw, #Sentencing, #StatutoryConstruction
The Third Circuit issued two critical holdings in this immigration case. First, the Court held that it had jurisdiction to review the petitioner’s legal argument in the first instance because the Department of Homeland Security’s expedited removal procedures do not allow aliens to challenge the legal basis for their removal. And second, the Court held that the petitioner’s Pennsylvania state conviction for receiving stolen property is an aggravated felony under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
#ImmigrationLaw, #Jurisdiction, #AggravatedFelony
The Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s order granting a preliminary injunction. Beginning in April 2020, Port Authority required its uniformed employees to wear face masks at work. Some employees wore masks bearing political or social-protest messages. Concerned that such masks would disrupt its workplace, Port Authority prohibited them in July 2020. The employees and their union sued, alleging that Port Authority had violated their First Amendment rights. The District Court entered a preliminary injunction rescinding discipline imposed under the July policy and preventing Port Authority from enforcing its policy against “Black Lives Matter” masks. Port Authority appealed. The Third Circuit affirmed, holding “only that at this early stage Port Authority has not shown that its mask policies withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
#CivilLaw, #EmploymentLaw, #FirstAmendment, #COVID-19
Just in time for July 4th, the Third Circuit dealt with a copyright fight between competing fireworks businesses. Both businesses manufacture and sell hardware and software that controls fireworks displays. One sued the other under 17 U.S.C. § 106, claiming it violated a copyright in the communication protocol used to control fireworks displays. The Third Circuit ruled that the copyright was invalid because neither the copyright holder’s digital message format nor its individual messages were copyrightable.
In this bankruptcy case, the Third Circuit announced the standard for appointing “future claimants’ representatives” (FCRs) and affirmed the District Court’s order. A group of insurance companies appealed an order appointing a representative for the interests of unidentified future asbestos and talc claimants. According to these insurers, who fund the asbestos claims trust established under 11 U.S.C. § 524(g), this FCR had a conflict of interest because the FCR’s law firm also represented two of the insurance companies in a separate asbestos-related coverage dispute. The Third Circuit adopted the following standard: “An FCR must be able to act in accordance with a duty of independence from the debtor and other parties in interest in the bankruptcy, a duty of undivided loyalty to the future claimants, and an ability to be an effective advocate for the best interests of the future claimants.” The Court then ruled that the District Court gave due consideration to the purported conflict and correctly determined that the interests of the insurance companies and the future claimants were adequately protected.
The Third Circuit dealt with a dispute between a first-grader’s parents and the child’s school. After an exhaustive series of tests and evaluations, school employees determined that the child did not meet the eligibility requirements for special education. The child’s family disagreed. But about two months later, a psychiatrist diagnosed the student with ADHD, and the school district conceded that special education services were necessary. The parents sought administrative redress under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act, claiming that the school district denied their child his statutory right to a free appropriate public education by failing to offer special education services earlier. The hearing officer denied the grievance, so the parents filed a complaint in District Court. The District Court and Third Circuit upheld the hearing officer’s ruling.