Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
County of Fulton, et al. v. Sec. of Com.
The Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth decertified certain voting equipment that Fulton County acquired from Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. (“Dominion”) in 2019 and used in the 2020 general election. The Secretary decertified the voting equipment after learning that, following the 2020 election, Fulton County had allowed Wake Technology Services, Inc. (“Wake TSI”), to perform a probing inspection of that equipment as well as the software and data contained therein. The Secretary maintained that Wake TSI’s inspection had compromised the integrity of the equipment. Fulton County and the other named Petitioner-Appellees petitioned in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction to challenge the Secretary’s decertification authority generally and as applied in this case. During the pleading stage, the Secretary learned that Fulton County intended to allow another entity, Envoy Sage, LLC, to inspect the allegedly compromised equipment. The Secretary sought a protective order from the Commonwealth Court barring that inspection and any other third-party inspection during the litigation. The court denied relief. The Secretary appealed that ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which entered a temporary order on January 27, 2022, to prevent the inspection and to preserve the status quo during the Court's review of the Secretary’s appeal. Months later—and with no public consideration, official proceedings, or notice to the courts or other parties to this litigation—the County allowed yet another party, Speckin Forensics, LLC to inspect the voting equipment and electronic evidence at issue in this litigation. Upon learning of this alleged violation of the temporary order, the Secretary filed an “Application for an Order Holding [the County] in Contempt and Imposing Sanctions.” The Supreme Court found Fulton County willfully violated the Supreme Court's order. The Court found Fulton County and its various attorneys engaged in a "sustained, deliberate pattern of dilatory, obdurate, and vexatious conduct and have acted in bad faith throughout these sanction proceedings." Taken as a whole, that behavior prompted the Court to sanction both the County and the County Attorney. View "County of Fulton, et al. v. Sec. of Com." on Justia Law
O’Neill v. SERS
Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act (“Act 140”) mandated the forfeiture of the pension of a public official or public employee when he or she was convicted of certain Pennsylvania crimes related to public office or public employment, or was convicted of federal offenses that were “substantially the same” as the forfeit-triggering state crimes. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether a federal conviction for false statements to a federal agent, 18 U.S.C. § 1001 was “substantially the same” as the Pennsylvania crime of false reports to law enforcement authorities, 18 Pa.C.S. § 4906, for purposes of Act 140. The Supreme Court concluded that the two offenses were not “substantially the same,” and, thus, the Commonwealth Court erred in affirming the forfeiture of the pension of Appellant, former Municipal Court of Philadelphia County Judge Joseph O’Neill. View "O'Neill v. SERS" on Justia Law
Khalil v. Williams
The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether Appellant’s legal malpractice claims against Appellees, her former attorneys, were barred under the Court’s decision in Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod & Gutnick, 587 A.2d 1346 (Pa. 1991), which held that a plaintiff could not sue his attorney on the basis of the adequacy of a settlement to which the plaintiff agreed, unless the plaintiff alleged the settlement was the result of fraud. Appellant, Dr. Ahlam Kahlil, owned a unit in the Pier 3 Condominiums in Philadelphia; the unit was insured by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (“State Farm”). The Pier 3 Condominium Association (“Pier 3”) was insured under a master policy issued by Travelers Property Casualty Company of America (“Travelers”). In May 2007, Appellant sustained water damage to her unit as a result of a leak in the unit directly above hers, which was owned by Jason and Anne Marie Diegidio. Due to the water damage, Appellant moved out of her unit and stopped paying her condominium fees. Appellant filed suit against State Farm and Travelers, alleging breach of contract and bad faith, and against the Diegidios, alleging negligence. A year later, Pier 3 filed a separate lawsuit against Appellant for her unpaid condominium fees and charges. In affirming in part and reversing in part the trial court, the Supreme Court found that by finding Appellant’s claims were barred under Muhammad, the lower courts ignored other averments in Appellant’s complaint which did not allege fraud, but, rather, alleged legal malpractice by Appellees in allowing Appellant to enter into a settlement agreement in the Water Damage Case that subsequently precluded her from raising her desired claims in the Fees Case, while repeatedly advising Appellant that the settlement agreement would not preclude those claims. "[A]s our review of Appellant’s complaint demonstrates that she was not merely challenging the amount of her settlement in the Water Damage Case, but rather alleged that Appellees provided incorrect legal advice regarding the scope and effect the Travelers Release, we hold that Muhammad’s bar on lawsuits based on the adequacy of a settlement is not implicated in this case." View "Khalil v. Williams" on Justia Law
Estate of Bisher v. Lehigh Vly Health Net.
Following the death of their twenty-five-year-old son Cory Bisher (“Cory”), Brenton and Carla Bisher filed suit, without representation by counsel, against eleven defendants comprising both named individuals and corporate entities alleging their medical malpractice resulting in Cory’s death. Each parent brought their own wrongful death claims, and Carla filed a survival action on behalf of Cory’s estate (“Estate”). Following protracted proceedings, the trial court struck the amended complaint with prejudice because of defects in the Certificates of Merit mandated by Rule of Civil Procedure 1042.3 in professional liability suits against licensed professionals. On appeal, the Superior Court sua sponte determined that the Bishers committed two errors that jointly deprived the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction over all claims: Carla’s unauthorized practice of law and the lack of verification of the complaint. The panel concluded that it too lacked jurisdiction and quashed the appeal. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that neither the unauthorized practice of law in the trial court, nor the lack of verification identified by the Superior Court, implicated subject-matter jurisdiction, and thus could not be raised sua sponte. The Supreme Court also disagreed with the panel’s alternative holding that the trial court properly struck the amended complaint because of the defects in the Certificates of Merit. Because the unauthorized practice of law issue will be ripe for further litigation on remand, the Supreme Court concluded that pleadings unlawfully filed by non-attorneys were not void ab initio. "Instead, after notice to the offending party and opportunity to cure, the pleadings are voidable in the discretion of the court in which the unauthorized practice of law took place." View "Estate of Bisher v. Lehigh Vly Health Net." on Justia Law
In Re: Estate of McAleer
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine could be invoked by a trustee to prevent the disclosure to a beneficiary of communications between the trustee and counsel pertaining to attorney fees expended from a trust corpus. To reach that issue, the Court had to first address the question of whether the Superior Court erred in disclaiming jurisdiction on the basis that the trial court’s order rejecting the privilege claim was not a collateral order, and immediately reviewable as such. The Supreme Court held unanimously that the Superior Court had immediate appellate jurisdiction to review the privilege question on the merits, and therefore erred in concluding otherwise. As to the privilege issue itself, the Superior Court indicated that, notwithstanding its perceived lack of jurisdiction, there was no evidence by which to substantiate a claim of privilege on the merits, nor any argument presented to the trial court in support thereof. For those reasons, the court was left to conclude that the privilege was unavailable under the circumstances and that the communications at issue were subject to disclosure. The Supreme Court did not reach a consensus on whether the privilege may be invoked in the trust context. Because disclosure would nevertheless result from the competing positions set forth by a majority of Justices, the lower court’s alternative ruling was affirmed by operation of law. View "In Re: Estate of McAleer" on Justia Law
In Re: P.G.F.
In this appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether, under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, an attorney could act as both guardian ad litem and legal counsel for a minor child, in the context of a petition for termination of parental rights, where counsel did not expressly inquire into the child’s preferred outcome of the termination proceedings. In these unique circumstances, the Court found the attorney was able to fulfill her professional duties and act in both roles. Thus, the Court affirmed the Superior Court order, which affirmed the termination of parental rights in this case. View "In Re: P.G.F." on Justia Law
Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor.
In September 2014, prior to the request for the records at issue in this case, the Abolitionist Law Center published a report which alleged a causal connection between the ill health of inmates at SCI-Fayette, and the facility’s proximity to a fly ash dumpsite. In response to the report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) coordinated with the Department of Health (DOH) to investigate the allegations (the No Escape Investigation). Reporter Christine Haines of The Herald Standard (Appellees) sent an e-mail Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL) request to the DOC seeking documentation of inmate illnesses. The DOC denied Appellees' request in its entirety, citing several exceptions under Section 708(b) of the RTKL, as well as attorney-client privilege and deliberative process privilege grounds. Then in December 2014, in-house counsel for the DOC disclosed fifteen pages of records to Appellees. Appellees asked DOC to verify that its December disclosure was a complete response. Several additional records were subsequently released, but implicitly, the records released were the DOC's response. In February 2015, Appellees filed a petition for enforcement with the Commonwealth Court, seeking statutory sanctions and attorney fees alleging DOC demonstrated bad faith in responding to the request for records. The court identified records that the DOC should have provided. But because the panel could not discern the full extent of any non-compliance by DOC, the panel directed the parties to file a stipulation as to the disclosure status of court-identified five classes of records. Appellees' motion was thus denied without prejudice, and the court reserved judgment on the issue of bad faith sanctions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted appeal in this matter to consider the assessment of sanctions and fees based on the Commonwealth Court's finding of bad faith and willful and wanton behavior. The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed, finding that Section 1304(a0(1) of the RTKL “permit[s] recovery of attorney fees when the receiving agency determination is reversed, and it deprived a requester of access to records in bad faith.” View "Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor." on Justia Law
Raynor v. D’Annunzio
This appeal arose from a medical malpractice action in which appellees Nancy Raynor, Esq. and Raynor & Associates served as defense counsel for Dr. Jeffrey Gellar and Roxborough Emergency Physician Associates (collectively Roxborough). Rosalind Sutch, executrix of the estate of Rosalind Wilson (decedent), and her counsel in that lawsuit, Messa & Associates, P.C. was plaintiff in the suit. Joseph Messa, Jr., Esq. (collectively, the Messa appellants) were Sutch's counsel. In July 2009, Sutch filed a medical malpractice action alleging, among other things, Roxborough failed to obtain a CT scan and timely diagnose decedent’s lung cancer. The trial court granted Sutch’s pre-trial motion in limine, and defendants were precluded “from presenting any evidence, testimony, and/or argument regarding decedent’s smoking history” at trial. During trial, Sutch’s counsel requested an order from the trial judge directing Raynor to inform witnesses of the ban on testimony regarding decedent’s smoking history before taking the stand. The court did not issue the requested order; upon questioning, the defense expert testified the decedent was a smoker, was hypertensive, and had vascular disease. The witness did not recollect having a discussion with Raynor regarding mentioning the decedent's smoking. Plaintiff's counsel asked for a mistrial and/or sanctions. The trial judge denied the request for a mistrial and instead provided a curative instruction to the jury. At the end of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Sutch. Appellants filed post-trial motions seeking a new trial as well as an order holding Raynor in contempt and awarding sanctions in the aggregate amount of counsel fees and costs for the first trial ($1,349,063.67). The court granted the motion for a new trial. The court found Raynor to be in civil contempt and issued an order for sanctions in the amount of $946,195.16 to be divided among appellants. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether the Superior Court properly determined a request for contempt sanctions against opposing counsel raised in a post-trial motion in a lawsuit where neither counsel was a named party, constituted actionable “civil proceedings” under the Dragonetti Act. The Supreme Court concluded that intra-case filings, such as the subject post-trial motion for contempt and/or sanctions, did not constitute the “procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings” as contemplated under the Dragonetti Act. The Superior Court erred when it held otherwise. View "Raynor v. D'Annunzio" on Justia Law
Pennsylvania v. Reid
This case was one of several similarly situated capital appeals involving former Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s role as the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. In 2017, the Honorable Leon Tucker, Supervising Judge of the Criminal Division, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (“PCRA court”), granted appellant Anthony Reid relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act in the form of nunc pro tunc reinstatement of his right to appeal the order denying his first timely PCRA petition. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously affirmed the order denying appellant’s first PCRA petition; however, the PCRA court concluded the Supreme Court had to reconsider appellant’s PCRA appeal again, this time without the participation of Chief Justice Castille, pursuant to Williams v. Pennsylvania, 136 S.Ct. 1899 (2016). While the Pennsylvania Court agreed Chief Justice Castille’s participation in appellant’s prior PCRA appeal implicated the same due process concerns at issue in Williams, the Supreme Court concluded the lower court lacked jurisdiction under the PCRA to reinstate appellant’s nunc pro tunc right to appeal. Consequently, the Supreme Court also lacked jurisdiction, and was compelled to quash this serial appeal as untimely. View "Pennsylvania v. Reid" on Justia Law
Pgh History v. Ziegler
This case involved questions of how the attorney-client privilege should apply in the context of derivative litigation. The nonprofit corporations involved in this matter were the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (“the Foundation”) and its subsidiary, the Landmarks Financial Corporation (“the Corporation”), which managed the Foundation’s endowment. Plaintiffs were five former members of the Boards of Trustees of the Foundation and the Corporation who alleged they were improperly and ineffectively removed from the Boards in an attempt to thwart their oversight of the Foundation’s president, whom they believed was engaging in actions that were improper and not in accord with the Foundation’s mission. The Foundation’s Board created a Governance Task Force to review various practices of the Foundation; the Task Force recommended that both Boards be reduced substantially in number. The Foundation Board approved this recommendation and removed all trustees then serving from both Boards; significantly smaller boards were elected and as a result of these consolidations, and Derivative Plaintiffs lost their seats on the Boards. In accord with standard procedures for bringing a derivative action adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Cuker v. Mikalauskas, 692 A.2d 1042 (Pa. 1997). The Supreme Court rejected the Commonwealth Court’s adoption of a qualified attorney-client privilege as set forth in Garner v. Wolfinbarger, 430 F.2d 1093 (5th Cir. 1970), which the Supreme Court viewed as inconsistent with prior Pennsylvania caselaw emphasizing predictability in the application of the attorney-client privilege. However, the Commonwealth Court’s decision not to apply the fiduciary or co-client exceptions to the attorney-client privilege under the facts of this case was affirmed. The matter was remanded for further al court and the Commonwealth Court and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Pgh History v. Ziegler" on Justia Law