(412) 329-7751

December 2021 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Jan 17, 2022 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 25 (!) opinions and 2 allocatur grants.   The Court's tour de force this month likely owes not to any desire on the Justices' part to avoid celebrating the holidays, but, rather, to the fact that Justice, now Chief Justice Emeritus Saylor faced mandatory retirement on New Year's Eve.  It is common for the Court to essentially clear as much of the docket as it can when facing an impending change in its composition so as to avoid resubmission to the court and restarting the deliberative process.

Additionally, it seems altogether fitting that one of Chief Justice Emeritus Saylor's final opinions is his concurring (in the result) opinion in Metal Green, which says as follows, in toto:

In some material respects, my sentiments are more in line with positions advanced by Justice Wecht in his dissenting opinion than the lead Justices' approach. For example, although the concept of a minimum variance requirement already is confounding in the context of use (as opposed to dimensional) variance scenarios, I agree with Justice Wecht that blight should be considered in the assessment. In reaching this conclusion, I recognize that such consideration injects additional layers of abstractness and subjectivity into the calculus. However, the alternative of ignoring blight when attempting to reconcile the degree of impact of a non-conforming use upon the character of a neighborhood with the burden suffered by the applicant appears to me to be the less palatable alternative.

Ultimately, while I find that the zoning board's failure to render a reasoned decision tests the limits of arbitrariness, I support the lead Justices' approach of implementing the mainstream remedy of a remand for appropriate consideration. When Appellant purchased the subject property, the relevant the local zoning restrictions and the rigorous requirements which must be met to evade them were in place; moreover, there is an element of discretion associated with the affordance of extraordinary treatment. Absent a constitutional challenge to those requirements or such discretionary overlay, it seems to me to be within the purview of the local board to enforce the requirements upon an exercise of sound discretion while providing an adequate explanation. And, although I acknowledge that the dissenting opinion gives me great pause, my circumspection about whether such an explanation may be provided based on the present record falls short of the wholesale rejection posited by the dissent.   

Saylor's career on the Court has been dotted with similarly measured and often sphinxlike secondary opinions, many of which, like this one, leave complicated questions open for a later day, or leave the proverbial door open for the next litigant to temper an earlier decision.

And although he has long held a reputation as a careful and thoughtful jurist, if sometimes difficult to pin down, his true legacy may be as a similarly thoughtful administrator at a time when the Court needed him the most.  Throughout the early 2010s, numerous Justices were plagued with scandals ranging from engaging in improper campaign activity to the sharing of racist, sexist, and pornographic content with state Attorneys General, to simple internecine feuds, all of which no doubt distracted the Court from its primary functions.  However, after several of the aforementioned Justices were removed, resigned, or retired, Saylor took the helm as Chief Justice and worked hard with the Court in its new complement to create a sense of authentic collegiality and respect.  What's more, after the Court's 2018 decision invalidating the extant Congressional redistricting plan as unconstitutional (among others) prompted certain Republican members of the General Assembly to make encroachments on the Court, Saylor, who was elected as a Republican and who did not join the Court's decision, made no bones about standing up for the co-equality of the judiciary as a branch of government and the fundamental importance of judicial independence to our constitutional republic.

Your author's first legal job out of law school was working for a trial judge who was himself on the cusp of retirement, and, as the day neared, I asked him what he hoped people would say about him years later.  After pausing for a while, and then a while longer, he indicated that he just hoped people would say that he was fair.  In his capacity as a Justice, and as Chief Justice, Saylor can rest assured that he was fair. 

Precedential Opinions

Commonwealth v. Barr, 28 MAL 2021 (Opinion by Baer, J.) (holding that the odor of marijuana alone does not constitute probable cause to search a vehicle)

O'Donnell v. Allegheny Cnt. North Tax Collections Cmte., 8 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that a whistleblower's portion of a qui tam settlement is state-taxable income)

In the Interest of Y.W.-B., 1 EAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that an anonymous report that a parent was homeless and had failed to feed her child for a single eight-hour period did not constitute probable cause for a child-welfare agency to conduct a nonconsensual entry into her home)

In re Adoption of L.A.K., 14 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that the Superior Court misapplied the applicable standard of review in reversing a trial court's determination that a parent's alcoholism did not warrant termination of his parental rights)

Corman v. Beam, 83 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that the Secretary of Health lacked the authority to impose a masking mandate in Pennsylvania schools)

Metal Green, Inc. v. City of Phila., 9 EAP 2021 (providing certain governing-law and standard-of-review principles for zoning use variances)

Lagerman v. Zepp, 21 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (reaffirming that a plaintiff in a medical malpractice action may elicit both direct evidence and circumstantial, including res ipsa loquitur, evidence)

Commonwealth v. Santana, 23 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that an earlier decision invalidating an earlier iteration of Pennsylvania's sexual offender registration and notification statute applies with equal force in the context of extrajurisdictional sexual offenses)

Mallory v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., 3 EAP 2021 (Opinion by Baer, C.J.) (holding that a business's registry as a foreign corporation is not sufficient to subject it to general jurisdiction in Pennsylvania courts)

Commonwealth v. Green, 6 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (holding that a search warrant for all the electronic devices in a defendant's home was supported by probable cause where it was predicated on illegal activity using his internet-protocol address)

Commonwealth v. McCabe, 50 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (holding that problem-solving courts are not governed by the chapter of the Rules of Criminal Procedure pertaining to accelerated rehabilitative dispositions)

Commonwealth v. Talley, 14 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (clarifying the standard of proof at a pretrial bail hearing and holding that the best-evidence rule does not preclude the introduction of screenshots of text messages)

Whalen v. PSERS, 33 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that a school principal's age-discrimination settlement was not compensation within the meaning of the Retirement Code)

Albert v. Sheeley's Drug Store, 5 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that an overdose victim's wrongful death action against a pharmacy was barred by the in pari delicto doctrine)

Commonwealth v. Young, 19 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (reiterating that the filing of a single notice of appeal with multiple docket numbers is improper, but remanding for consideration of whether the defect may be curable)

Energy Transfer v. Friedman, 24 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that the Public Utility Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to review requests for documents of a public utility that it has designated as confidential security information)

Bisher v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc., 22 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (reversing the Superior Court's decision that several procedural defects in a wrongful death and survival action deprived the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction and/or warranted dismissal of the action)

General Motors Corp. v. Commonwealth, 12 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Baer, C.J.) (holding that an earlier decision holding that the caps on the state corporate net-loss carryover deduction were unconstitutional required invalidation of the deduction in its entirety, but holding that the appellant was entitled to non-capped deductions pursuant to certain federal constitutional decisions)

Steltz v. Meyers, 10 EAP 2021 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (clarifying the governing law for motions for mistrial)

Eastern Univ. Academy Charter Sch. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 16 EAP 2021 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that the Charter School Law imposes no mandatory deadline for charter renewal)

Lorino v. WCAB, 8 EAP 2021 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that the Workers' Compensation Act does not preclude an award of attorney's fees to a claimant where an employer had a reasonable basis for seeking a termination of benefits)

Keystone Rx LLC v. Bureau of Workers' Comp. Fee Rev. Hrg. Ofc., 27 EAP 2020 (Opinion by Baer, C.J.) (holding that non-treating medical providers need not be given notice and an opportunity to intervene in utilization review matters)

Commonwealth v. DiStefano, 7 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Baer, C.J.) (holding the Superior Court misapplied the applicable standard of review in reversing a trial court's determination that a defendant's conduct caused the victim's death in a non-homicide case)

In the Interest of J.J.M., 23 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding that criminal prohibition of non-intentional threats is not barred by the First Amendment, but holding that the subject "threats" were not true threats)

League of Women Voters v. Degraffenreid, 4 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that the General Assembly's enactment of a so-called "victim's rights amendment" was unconstitutional because it was actually numerous amendments log-rolled into one) 

Allocatur Grants

Commonwealth v. Wallace, 183 MAL 2021 (granting review to determine whether global-positioning-system records are hearsay)

Commonwealth v. Smith, 410 MAL 2021 (granting review to determine whether the introduction of a co-defendant's statement violated the defendant's right to confront the witnesses against her)

About the Author

Corrie Woods

Corrie is our primary litigator, and focuses his practice on appellate, criminal, and post-conviction cases. Corrie also authors the firm's blog, SCOPABlog, which is the only regularly updated blog providing comprehensive coverage of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's docket. Corrie became an a...


There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment

Woods Law Offices Is Here for You

At Woods Law Offices PLLC, we focus on Crimial & Civil Appeals, Amicus Curiae, Appellate Consulting and General Referrals. We're here to listen to you and help you navigate the legal system.

Secure Online Payments

Make a Payment

(412) 324-3577 (fax)
Mon: 08:00am - 05:00pm
Tue: 08:00am - 05:00pm
Wed: 08:00am - 05:00pm
Thu: 08:00am - 05:00pm
Fri: 08:00am - 05:00pm