Opinion Summaries for the

Below are summaries of the precedential appellate decisions from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Third Circuit for the week of June 6. Click on a case name to read the court’s entire opinion.


Commonwealth v. Smith

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This en banc panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s opinion thoroughly reviewed the caselaw about the voluntariness of a defendant’s statement after the police give Miranda warnings. The panel then vacated the defendant’s convictions of rape and IDSI. The defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying a motion to suppress his statement. The Court ruled that it could not review the suppression court’s decision because “the suppression judge wholly failed to satisfy the requirements of” Pa. R. Crim. P. Rule 581(I).

#CriminalLaw, #Miranda, #Suppression, #5thAmendment

Commonwealth v. Skipper

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the Court of Common Pleas order that granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized during a traffic stop. The defendant was the passenger in a vehicle, and the contraband he sought to suppress was located in the glove compartment. The Commonwealth claimed that the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle. The Superior Court found that the argument was waived because the Commonwealth conceded the claim before the lower court, and “a challenge to a defendant’s expectation of privacy is woven into the complex burden shifting involved in suppression hearings.”

#CriminalLaw, #Suppression, #ReasonableExpectationOfPrivacy

Commonwealth v. Cooper

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that Appellant violated parole but reversed its ruling that Appellant anticipatorily violated probation. The Court held that “in light of the recent Superior Court decision in Simmons, the trial court imposed an illegal sentence for the probation violation because at the time Appellant engaged in the criminal conduct that resulted in his conviction, Appellant was not serving his probationary sentence, and the trial court lacked the authority to find that Appellant anticipatorily violated probation.”

#CriminalLaw, #Sentencing, #VOP

Riemenschneider v. D. Sabatelli, Inc.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order that dismissed this negligence and wrongful death action. The plaintiff was the administrator of the estate of an individual who sustained fatal injuries when the brakes failed on a dump truck he was operating for his employer, the defendant. The defendant filed preliminary objections asserting a demurrer on the ground that the suit was barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provision. The Superior Court ruled that the plaintiff’s claim must fail because the limitation on beneficiaries is one of the tradeoffs embodied in the Act.

#CivilLaw, #AdministrativeLaw, #WorkersComp

U.S. Bank Trust Nat’l Assoc. v. Unknown Heirs

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the Court of Common Pleas order that denied the plaintiffs’ motion to strike its praecipe to discontinue the action. The issue dealt with whether a party may seek to discontinue — and essentially vacate — a judgment entered after summary judgment was granted via praecipe. The Court found “no basis in Pennsylvania law for the proposition that a plaintiff may sua sponte discharge a final judgment by utilizing a praecipe to discontinue.” Instead, “a judgment is not a unilateral right held by the winning party, but a determination under the control of the court.” As such, it may not be entered via praecipe filed well after the litigation became final.

#CivilLaw, #RealProperty, #TrustAndEstates, #Discontinuance

Sicilia v. API Roofers Advantage Program

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court vacated an order granting Employer’s petition to modify Claimant’s compensation status to partially disabled. Claimant argued that the workers’ compensation judge (WCJ) erred in failing to consider reasonably related conditions not formally added to the notice of compensation payable for which he underwent surgeries previously determined to be Employer’s responsibility. The Court agreed, ruling that the WCJ “misapprehended the discretion accorded an Impairment Rating Evaluation physician-evaluator.”

#AdministrativeLaw, #WorkersComp, #Disability

Konieczny v. Zappala

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed and remanded the Court of Common Pleas order that granted the preliminary objections filed by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. The plaintiffs filed the action after the DA’s Office refused to accept their private criminal complaints that alleged Pittsburgh’s City Council and Mayor committed the crime of official oppression when passing ordinances outlawing firearms and firearms accessories within the city limits. The Commonwealth Court held that the DA’s Office was required under Pa. R. Crim. P. 506 to review the private criminal complaints and either approve and forward them to the issuing authority (a Magisterial District Judge) or deny them, stating the reasons for the denials in writing on the complaints.

#AdministrativeLaw, #PrivateCriminalComplaint, #CriminalLaw

DuBoise v. Rumick

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court denied Inmate DuBoise’s Application for Summary Relief seeking judgment against the State Correctional Institution at Forest’s Medical Records Custodian, who denied DuBoise’s request to obtain his mental health treatment records. The Court ruled that the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) relevant policy does not unreasonably infringe on DuBoise’s equal protection rights. The “DOC has a legitimate penological interest in the Policy’s prohibition on inmates possessing their mental health treatment records, and DuBoise did not present sufficient justification in the pleadings to disprove the Policy’s validity.”

#AdministrativeLaw, #PrisonLitigation, #EqualProtection

Brussard v. Pa. Dep’t of Conservation and Nat. Res.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court vacated the State Board of Property’s order, which sustained the preliminary objections of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to the Bussards’ Amended Petition Seeking Confirmation of Ownership of Real Property and dismissed the Amended Petition with prejudice. The Bussards and the Department relied on competing chains of title to a property. The Court ruled that the Board erred by sustaining the Department’s preliminary objections and dismissing the Amended Petition because the Bussards raised disputed questions of fact concerning their title to the property.

#AdministrativeLaw, #PropertyLaw


State v. Derry

The New Jersey Supreme Supreme Court affirmed the defendants’ murder convictions. First, the defendants were convicted in federal court of various drug offenses and the discharge of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking crime. They received a sentence enhancement that applies if a victim was killed under circumstances that would constitute murder. Then, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office indicted the defendants for murder and conspiracy. The defendants moved to dismiss their state-court indictment under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-3(f), arguing that the federal prosecution had already captured the murder because the discharge of a firearm charge covered the shooting of the victim. The trial court denied the motion. At the trial, before an agent testified, the defendants objected to his translation and interpretation of the defendants’ and others’ use of slang terms, arguing that the testimony was expert testimony rather than lay opinion testimony. The Supreme Court ruled that based on the differences between the federal and state proceedings, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss the indictment. Next, the Court found that the agent’s interpretations were expert rather than lay opinions, but the error in admitting them as lay opinion testimony was harmless.

#CriminalLaw, #MotionToDismiss, #ExpertTestimony

State v. Gomes

In these consolidated appeals, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a defendant who received a prior conditional discharge for a low-level marijuana offense is ineligible for PTI. The case turned on the Court’s interpretation of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act. The Court ruled that “the Legislature’s differential treatment of records of prior and pending charges for petty and disorderly persons marijuana offenses in N.J.S.A. 2C:52-6.1, compared to its treatment of records associated with underage persons’ use of marijuana in N.J.S.A. 2C:33-15 evinces its intent to subject the former group to the limitations associated with expungements.”

#CriminalLaw, #Marijuana, #PTI, #StatutoryInterpretation

State v. Watson

The New Jersey Appellate Division concluded its 166-page opinion by stating that “to the extent we have not addressed them, any additional arguments raised by defendant lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion in this opinion.” The arguments the Court reviewed were critical criminal law issues. First, the Court held that the trial court violated the defendant’s confrontation rights by permitting testimony that the investigating police agency consulted with another police department before filing criminal charges. But the Court ruled that it was harmless error. Second, the Appellate Division concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing a police witness to narrate surveillance video as it was being played to the jury. Third, the Court rejected the defendant’s contention that the trial court erred by allowing a witness to make an in-court identification after having selected the photograph of another person from a photo array. Fourth, the Court rejected the defendant’s complaints that the lower court erred by reading the model jury instructions for some portions and further erred by failing to tailor other sections appropriately. But all parties agreed that the trial court did not make a finding on the defendant’s ability to pay restitution. Thus, the Appellate Division reversed the restitution order and remanded for an ability-to-pay hearing.

#CriminalLaw, #Confrontation, #Evidence, #Video, #JuryInstructions, #Restitution

Sullivan v. Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co.

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the opinion of the Appellate Division, holding that New Jersey State Bar Ass’n v. New Jersey Ass’n of Realtor Boards does not prohibit an auction house from providing a contract for sale without a three-day attorney review period. The issue arose when someone bought the property at an auction, and an auction house employee provided the buyer with a final sales contract without an attorney review period. That employee was not a lawyer. And in prior cases, the Supreme Court had held that a licensed real estate broker or salesperson who prepares a contract for the sale of specific categories of residential real estate engages in the unauthorized practice of law if that contract does not have a three-day attorney review period during which either party’s counsel may cancel the contract. The buyer in the instant action sought to invoke the rule to avoid a breach of contract claim. But the Supreme Court — like the Appellate Division — found that rule inapposite to auctions.

#CivilLaw, #Contracts, #RealEstateLaw, #Auction

Petro v. Platkin

The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the Chancery Division’s order that ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing and their substantive challenge lacked merit. At issue was New Jersey’s Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act. The plaintiffs were a terminally ill man, a physician, and a pharmacist seeking to enjoin the act. The Chancery and Appellate Divisions found that the plaintiffs lacked standing, and their prolix challenges to the substance of the legislation were meritless.

#CivilLaw, #Standing

In re Wade

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed its prior ruling permitting life without the possibility of parole . . . for lawyers. In 1979, the Court decided In re Wilson, which called for automatic disbarment of attorneys who knowingly misappropriate client funds. Under that rule, disbarment is permanent and ends one’s ability to practice law. Here, the Court confirmed that In re Wilson is good law. However, the Court announced its intention to tweak the rule in the future. So, hold off on misappropriating the client’s funds for a bit longer.

#AdministrativeLaw, #RPC, #Ethics

Parsells v. Somerville Bd. of Educ.

The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the Commissioner of Education’s determination that the Somerville Board of Education violated Parselss’s rights when it refused to permit her to return to her tenured, full-time teaching position. The Court held that, consistent with the principles espoused in Bridgewater-Raritan Educ. Ass’n v. Bd. of Educ. of Bridgewater-Raritan Sch. Dist., school boards must notify, in advance, full-time teachers who consider voluntarily transferring to part-time teaching positions that they may not have a right to return to their full-time job.

#Administrative Law, #EducationLaw


United States v. Cannon

The Third Circuit dealt with an issue that “has confused defendants and divided courts in the Third Circuit”: Whether courts may excuse medical marijuana use in bond revocation hearings. Unsurprisingly, the Court ruled that courts may not permit the use of medical marijuana in such circumstances because “it is beyond dispute that the use and possession of marijuana—even where sanctioned by a State—remains a violation of federal law.” The defendant here complained because he is a paraplegic and suffers from severe medical conditions. His doctor had recommended medical marijuana and issued him a certification under Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act. But to no avail. Leave it to the Third Circuit to kill a dude’s buzz.

#CriminalLaw, #PretrialRelease, #MedicalMarijuana

United States v. Collins

The Third Circuit affirmed the civil penalties imposed for the defendant’s Bank Secrecy Act violation. The defendant claimed that the District Court erred when it found he willfully failed to report his foreign bank accounts in 2007 and 2008, and the IRS’s penalty calculation was an abuse of discretion. The defendant also argued the District Court erred by limiting his discovery regarding the IRS’s penalty computation and imposing interest as well as penalties under 31 U.S.C. § 3717.

#CriminalLaw, #WeightoftheEvidence, #Discovery

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