Opinion Summaries for the


Below are summaries of the precedential appellate decisions from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey state courts as well as the Third Circuit for the week of October 17. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s entire opinion.


PENNSYLVANIA

Commonwealth v. Price

In this Commonwealth appeal of the grant of a suppression motion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Commonwealth waived its claim about the applicability of the inevitable discovery doctrine. In its statement of errors, the Commonwealth asserted only that the trial court erred in granting the motion and ruling that the officer’s affidavit did not provide probable cause for the issuance of a warrant. But on appeal, the Commonwealth asserted that the evidence was not subject to suppression due to the applicability of the inevitable discovery doctrine. The Superior Court ruled that the Commonwealth did not waive the issue by failing to raise it in the statement of errors because inevitable discovery was a “subsidiary issue” under Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b)(4)(v). The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that inevitable discovery is not subsidiary to the issue of the sufficiency of probable cause. Therefore, the Commonwealth’s statement of errors should have separately raised the inevitable discovery doctrine.

Read Justice Mundy’s Opinion here.

Criminal Law, Statement of Errors, Waiver


Scott v. Pa. Bd. of Probation and Parole

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to hear this suit. Appellants filed a petition for review in the nature of a complaint in the Commonwealth Court. They sought a declaration that their parole ineligibility pursuant to 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1) is unconstitutional as applied on the grounds that depriving any opportunity for parole violates the constitutions of the Commonwealth and the United States.

Read Justice Mundy’s concurring opinion here.

Read Justice Wecht’s dissenting opinion here.

Administrative Law, Jurisdiction


In re American Network Ins. Co.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court waded into murky appellate procedure in this declaratory judgment action brought in the context of two insurance company liquidation matters. The Court reviewed the confusing procedural history, found that it had jurisdiction to review the case because the appeals were filed from a final order, and then ruled that the Commonwealth Court’s July 9, 2021 published opinion provided an accurate and detailed summary of the history and posture of the case, and the Liquidator’s proposal for which she sought a declaration of legal authority to fulfill.

Read Justice Wecht’s concurring opinion here.

Appellate Procedure, Insurance Law


In re K.N.L.

In this adoption case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the juvenile court misinterpreted or misapplied the law when it denied the appellant standing to intervene despite uncontroverted proof that he stood in loco parentis for the subject child by assuming the role of parent and discharging parental duties. The Court held that “the juvenile court applied an incorrect analysis of appellant’s standing to intervene in an adoption based on his asserted in loco parentis status, and therefore misapplied the law. A proper standing inquiry reviews whether a non-foster-parent third party seeking to pursue a petition to adopt a child in the custody of an agency has a genuine and substantial interest in formalizing a permanent parental relationship with the adoptee-child, which surpasses the interest of ordinary, unrelated strangers.”

Read Justice Donohue’s concurring opinion here.

Family Law, Standing


Commonwealth v. Smith

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed three of the defendant’s four sentences imposed after he pleaded guilty to four counts of arson. The Court ruled that based on the language of the arson statute, the unit of prosecution or actus reus that the General Assembly intended to punish is the act of intentionally starting a fire. Therefore, the trial court should have imposed only one sentence because the defendant set a single fire.

Criminal Law, Sentencing


Commonwealth v. Arnold

The Pennsylvania Superior Court split the baby in this prison contraband case. The defendant, who was prescribed Suboxne, was arrested on a parole violation. When he was searched as he was brought into the county jail, officers discovered a Suboxone pill. He was issued a wheelchair in jail because of a disability. Later, officers searched the wheelchair and found more Suboxone. The defendant was charged with both bringing the drugs into the facility under 18 Pa.C.S. § 5123(a) and possessing contraband while in the jail under Section 5123(a.2). The Court ruled that the Contraband Offense, Section 5123(a), contains a default mens rea of recklessness, provided by 18 Pa.C.S. § 302(c). Therefore, the contraband offense does not offend due process principles that disfavor strict liability crimes. But since the lower court failed to properly instruct the jury on mens rea, the Court vacated that conviction. The Court affirmed the other conviction.

Criminal Law, Mens Rea


Ritchey v. Rutters, Inc.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order, denying the defendants’ request to change venue in this personal injury and products liability action. The plaintiff suffered his injuries in a motorcycle crash in Cumberland County, his home county. The defendant owned the other vehicle and has its principal place of business in York County. The plaintiff sued in Philadelphia. The defendants moved to transfer venue and submitted more than 20 affidavits from witnesses that detailed the inconvenience each would suffer if the trial occurred in Philadelphia. The trial court denied the motion. The Superior Court affirmed, noting that the trial court is afforded much discretion and stressing the maxim that “there is a vast difference between a finding of inconvenience and one of oppressiveness.”

Civil Law, Forum Non Conveniens


Grady v. Nelson

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed an order of the Court of Common Pleas that denied the defendant’s motion to strike a judgment. The Superior Court ruled that the plaintiff served the complaint and judgment notices on a non-existent address, thus depriving the defendant of notice that this action was pending against him. The plaintiff’s ten-day notice of intent to enter a default judgment also did not comply with the language required under Pa.R.Civ.P. 237.5 and 237.1.

Civil Law, Service, Default Judgment


Commonwealth v. Nuzzo

The Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated the trial court’s order denying a request to seal an amended petition that sought an order directing an evaluation of Appellant’s competency. First, the Court concluded that the order designating Appellant’s competency petition as a public document was immediately appealable under Pa.R.A.P. 313. The Court then held that “the trial court erred as a matter of law in finding that Appellant’s competency petition did not fall under the auspices of the confidentiality protections afforded by the Mental Health Procedures Act because Appellant’s competency petition detailed his mental health treatment and diagnosis, which the Mental Health Procedures Act was designed to protect from public disclosure without authorization.”

Criminal Law, Collateral Order, Mental Health Procedures Act


Waters v. Express Container Servs. of Pittsburgh

The Pennsylvania Superior Court again dealt with an arbitration provision (and impressed us all by using “fora,” the plural of forum). The Court ruled that the plaintiff — a trucker — sustained his injuries in a slip-and-fall that was subject to an equipment lease and transportation agreement. Though the arbitration provision in that agreement did not specifically require this matter to proceed to arbitration, the Court broadly construed the agreement based on a clause requiring arbitration for issues that “arise out of or relate to operations pursuant to” it.

Civil Law, Arbitration


In re Estate of Byerley

In this will contest, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the orphans’ court’s decree directing probate of a will. The appellant unsuccessfully argued two issues: 1.) Whether the orphans’ court erred in barring the testimony of a doctor proffered as a fact and expert witness; and 2.) whether the orphans’ court erred in ruling that the will was not executed as a result of undue influence.

Estates, Undue Influence


In re M.A.

In this dispute about guardianship, the Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated the orphans’ court’s order that struck an attorney’s appearance on behalf of M.A., an alleged incapacitated person. The Court reversed because, as the case proceeded in the lower court, the court did not abide by the Orphans’ Court Rules and the Probate, Estates, and Fiduciaries Code.

Orphans’ Court, Guardianship


Pennsylvania State Police v. Madden

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed and remanded after granting the Pennsylvania State Police petition for review of an order of an Administrative Law Judge, which overruled PSP’s denial of an application to possess a firearm filed by the respondent. At issue was whether PSP satisfied its burden of proving the “interstate commerce” element implicitly required by Section 6105(c)(9) of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995. During the pendency of the appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its decision in Navarro v. Pennsylvania State Police, which held that the PSP must demonstrate that a firearm traveled in interstate or foreign commerce before denying a firearm return application pursuant to federal law, as was the case here. The Commonwealth Court remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings and additional evidence on the limited question of whether the respondent’s requested firearm was in or affected interstate commerce.

Administrative Law, VUFA


Lawhorne v. Lutron Electronics Co.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed the order of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board that affirmed a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Judge insofar as it denied the Claimant reimbursement for the cost of presenting her medical witness. The Court determined that Claimant partially prevailed in the litigation by successfully defending against Employer’s termination petition. Therefore, Claimant was entitled to recoup any related costs.

Administrative Law, Unemployment


Basnet v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Rev.

Claimant petitioned the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to review the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review’s (UCBR) September 7, 2021 order dismissing her appeal for untimeliness. Claimant presented two issues: “(1) whether the UCBR should grant nunc pro tunc relief where Claimant was non-negligent in filing her late appeal after encountering significant language barriers in understanding the Referee’s decision and related appeal instructions; and (2) whether the UCBR should grant nunc pro tunc relief where the Department of Labor and Industry and the UCBR did not provide adequate language assistance to Claimant in accordance with federal law and guidance, creating an administrative breakdown that led to her late appeal.” The Court affirmed, finding no merit to either issue.

Administrative Law, Unemployment Compensation


IDI Logistics, Inc. v. Clayton

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court granted an employer’s petition for review. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board had ruled that a trucker was an employee and that his employer had not established that it offered him valid light-duty work or that he refused reasonable medical treatment after he sustained an injury on the job. The Court affirmed the award of workers’ compensation benefits.

Administrative Law, Workers’ Comp


NEW JERSEY

C.L. v. Div of Med. Assistance & Health Servs.

The New Jersey Appellate Division got around to issuing its first precedential opinion in about three weeks. And it did so by jumping into the scintillating world of Medicaid eligibility and annuities. The Court held that the Division of Medical Assistance and Health Services erred when it ruled a particular annuity was revocable and therefore counted as a resource in calculating eligibility for the program.

Administrative Law, Medicaid


3RD CIRCUIT

Popa v. Harriet Carter Gifts, Inc.

The Third Circuit observed that the plaintiff was buying a stairway to . . . a class-action lawsuit. The plaintiff filed a putative class action. She was searching for pet stairs online at Harriet Carter Gift’s website and began the online process to purchase a set but decided otherwise and left the site (No stairway? Denied!). Unbeknownst to her, a third-party marketing firm was monitoring the site. When she found out, she sued under Pennsylvania’s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act. The District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The Third Circuit reversed “’cause you know, sometimes words have two meanings.” It held that the third-party firm could have “intercepted” protected communications. The Court also held that the interception occurred wherever the third party routed those communications to its own servers, which the Court left for the trial court to determine. Sullivan | Simon apologizes to Robert Plant and Mike Myers for appropriating their work for this summary.

Class Action, Wire Tap


United States v. Gussie

The Third Circuit ruled that a superseding indictment cured any potential harm caused when a grand juror sitting for the original indictment was a victim of the defendant’s fraud. Furthermore, the original indictment tolled the statute of limitations. Thus, because the superseding indictment was returned after the statute of limitations was tolled, the defendant was not entitled to relief.

Criminal Law, Indictment


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