Below are summaries of the precedential appellate decisions from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Third Circuit for the week of September 12. Click on a case name, and you will be redirected to the court’s entire opinion.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s murder conviction. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Instagram accounts because the Commonwealth failed to authenticate the content under Pa.R.E. 901. The Superior Court ruled “that the Commonwealth properly authenticated these social media accounts because there was substantial circumstantial evidence linking the accounts to” the defendant.
#Criminal Law, #Evidence
The Pennsylvania Superior Court determined the evidence was sufficient to convict Hummel of Aggravated Cruelty to Animal—Torture. The Court concluded that “the totality of evidence sufficed to prove that Hummel was aware his horse was becoming, over the course of several months, significantly emaciated from prolonged deprivation of food or sustenance that naturally would cause it to experience prolonged and severe pain. Yet, he continued to do nothing to aid his horse up to the time of its death, even despite attempts from a concerned neighbor and an Animal Humane Society officer to intervene on its behalf.”
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order that involuntarily terminated a couple’s parental rights. The parents brought one child to the pediatrician, who immediately called an ambulance to transport the child to the emergency room because the child suffered from severe injuries. The Court reviewed each parent’s claim and offered a particularly in-depth analysis of the mother’s arguments. The child was clearly physically abused, and the evidence established that the father committed the abuse (though that was far from a settled fact). Nonetheless, the Court found that the mother’s parental rights were properly terminated because she failed to protect the child from the father even if she did not perpetrate the abuse. Furthermore, the Court saw no reason to disturb the difficult credibility determinations that the Orphans’ Court made
The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that the Orphans’ Court erred in granting a preliminary injunction against two trustees. The lower court erroneously granted injunctive relief without either holding a hearing or finding that “immediate and irreparable injury would be sustained” if it failed to give relief before convening a hearing. And the lower court did not find that “a breach of trust has occurred or may occur,” as required under 20 Pa.C.S. § 7781(b), nor did it address the six prerequisites for a preliminary injunction. Furthermore, the Orphans’ Court erred by limiting one trustee’s exercise of power. The trustee held an exclusionary power of appointment in her individual capacity and was not bound by the duty of good faith in exercising that power.
The judges in the New Jersey appellate courts did not issue any precedential opinions, as they were probably enjoying another week at the beach.
The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the defendant’s post-conviction motion. In a plea agreement, the defendant admitted he had three prior “violent felony” convictions, requiring a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). A decade after he pled, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that one part of the ACCA’s definition of “violent felony,” known as the “residual clause,” was unconstitutionally vague. Seeking to retroactively benefit, the defendant asked the District Court to vacate his sentence and order resentencing. He argued that the three prior convictions mentioned in his plea memorandum could no longer be counted as ACCA predicates. The District Court denied the motion. The Third Circuit affirmed, ruling that the defendant did not show that his six other convictions under North Carolina’s breaking-and-entering statute did not qualify under the ACCA. And while those prior convictions were not mentioned in the defendant’s plea agreement, they were noted as ACCA predicates in the PreSentence Report. Therefore, the convictions “were reasonably before the sentencing court.”
The Third Circuit dealt with a case that concerned a decades-old contract among mostly non-U.S. parties, entered into in Saudi Arabia and performed there as well as in Saint Lucia. The defendants included Saudi Arabia and its former crown prince. The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court that there was no jurisdictional “hook” between the parties and their dispute and the United States. As a result, the Third Circuit affirmed the order dismissing the matter but reversed the determination that the order was with prejudice because none of the dispositive rulings reached the merits.
In this dispute involving the applicability of arbitration, the Third Circuit disagreed with the District Court’s interpretation of a contract. Xylem Dewatering Solutions and Field Intelligence entered into two contracts. The first contained an arbitration provision, and the second required the parties to litigate their disputes. A conflict arose between the businesses, and Field Intelligence filed suit in federal court alleging a breach of their second agreement. Xylem filed an arbitration demand and moved to stay the federal litigation pending the outcome of the arbitration. Field Intelligence asked the District Court to hold that the parties’ second contract superseded the first such that the arbitration provision contained in that earlier agreement was no longer in effect. The District Court ruled, first, that it had the authority to decide the supersession issue and, second, that the parties’ later agreement superseded their earlier contract, thereby eliminating any duty to arbitrate. Xylem appealed. The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court that it was authorized to determine whether the parties’ second agreement superseded and replaced the first. But the Third Circuit disagreed that the first agreement was superseded. Thus, the Court reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.
The Third Circuit considered whether an employee is covered under Section 15(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act where the employer suspected that the employee would file a consent to join an FLSA action. The wrinkle in the case was that the employee had not given testimony in the FLSA action and was not scheduled to do so. Section 15(a)(3) only provides protection when an employee testifies or is about to testify against an employer. But here, the employer merely suspected the employee might join an action. The Third Circuit held that Section 15(a)(3)’s “about to testify” language protects employees from discrimination because of an employer’s anticipation that the employee will soon file a consent to join a collective action.
The Third Circuit reversed an order of the District Court that granted summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer on a retaliation claim. All the employee’s claims focused on his contention that the grounds for his termination were pretext for illegal retaliation for his complaints of race and disability discrimination. The issue boiled down to why the employer had the employee’s cell phone. The District Court determined that scandalous material found on the phone caused the termination. The Third Circuit held that the employee pled “a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence, which, when taken as a whole and viewed in a light favorable to [his] case, could convince a reasonable jury that he was the victim of unlawful retaliation.”
The Third Circuit ruled that an Immigration Judge’s denial of a 30-day continuance so that Freza’s attorney could prepare to represent him adequately violated his due process right to a fundamentally fair hearing and his statutory right to counsel. As a result, the Court granted Freza’s petition for review and vacated the order of removal issued by the Board of Immigration Appeals, which affirmed the IJ’s decision that Freza was removable and ineligible for relief under the Convention Against Torture.
The Third Circuit issued a costly reminder to attorneys in this appeal of a consent judgment. The parties agreed to a consent judgment in favor of the plaintiffs for about $1.5 million in a dispute over a defaulted loan. In the promissory note, the defendants agreed to accept liability for post-judgment interest above the amount set by statute. After entering the consent judgment — which was silent as to post-judgment interest — the District Court awarded only the lower statutory interest, not the higher interest contracted for in the promissory note. The Third Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the consent judgment did not demonstrate clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally that the parties intended interest to accrue at a stipulated rate.
The Third Circuit held that several individual state legislators and Pennsylvania Municipalities lacked standing to challenge the Delaware River Basin Commission’s ban on fracking.