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February 2024 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Feb 29, 2024 | 0 Comments

This month on SCOPAblog, the court issued 10 precedential opinions and 6 grants of allocatur.  On the opinion side, I'm most interested in Salsberg, in which the Court has for all intents and purposes recognized an arguably new tort in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: intentional interference with an at-will employment relationship.  In Salsberg, Justice Brobson, writing for something of an unexpected coalition of himself and Justices Donahue, Dougherty, and Wecht, effectively holds that it is one thing to say that an at-will employee has no legally enforceable expectancy that his employment relationship will continue, but another thing to say that he cannot be wrong by third parties alien to that relationship interfering with his factual expectancy in that regard.  The majority's opinion is logically sound enough in this regard, but it will be interesting to see how the doctrines surrounding this cause of action are developed.  Although the majority cogently identifies that supervisors, co-workers, and the like are not third parties when acting in the scope of their employment, there are nevertheless many conceivable situations in which what have heretofore been relatively mundane personnel decisions may now become actionable, and many, many potential plaintiffs to bring the claims.

On the allocatur side, I'm most interested in Lee, which raises a challenge to Pennsylvania's mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for individuals convicted of second-degree murder, as applied to individuals who are convicted of so-called felony murder for committing or conspiring to commit a felony during which another individual commits a murder.  The challenge invokes the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which, in this author's estimation, is something of a nonstarter in light of the United States Supreme Court's rightward shift in recent years, but also under Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, regarding which the Court has significantly more leeway.  Indeed, although there are decisions from the Court's early days of "New Federalism," suggesting that the Eighth Amendment and Article I, Section 13 should ordinarily be interpreted coextensively, there have been more recent decisions, particularly in the areas of Excessive Fines and civil forfeiture, in which the Court has applied different standards, or, at least, applied them in a more evenhanded or Pennsylvania-localized way.  Still, the devil may be in the details.  Pursuant to the Court's Internal Operating Procedures, a vote of three Justices is sufficient to grant an appeal, whereas a vote of four is required to win.  Additionally, it is commonplace for Justices, particularly those who view their office as scholarly, to grant appeals to resolve interesting issues authoritatively, regardless of where they find themselves likely to land in the end.  A grant of allocatur, in this regard, is largely inscrutable from the outside.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that, last week, Chief Justice Todd, joined by Justice Brobson, and Court Administrator Andrea Tuominen, and flanked by President Judge Anne Lazarus of the Superior Court and President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer of the Commonwealth Court, among others, visited the General Assembly to testify relative to the judiciary's budgetary needs.  The hearing lasted approximately 2 hours, and is available for viewing on YouTube here.  In short, the hearing showed that the Chief Justice is in the right job.  From a purely informational perspective, the Chief, still less than 2 years into her role, demonstrated a remarkably strong command of the judicial branch, its functions, and its needs spanning back at times for decades and at a highly granular level.  And from a political perspective, she not only demonstrated the wisdom and coalition-building ability to attend with the recently-elected-as-a-Republican Justice Brobson and a group of jurists showing our courts in a unified, nonpartisan bloc when it comes to the importance of funding its operations, but also demonstrated a degree of assertiveness, grace, and candor that one rarely sees in state government before a body that, only a few years ago, threatened to impeach the entire court for recognizing the unconstitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.  The Chief has a long time to serve if she wants it, and if this hearing is any indication, could certainly use it quite well.

Precedential Opinions

Ivy Hill Cong. of Jehovah Witnesses v. DHS, 65 MAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Todd, C.J.) (holding that a Commonwealth Court decision in a declaratory judgment action contradicted a prior decision in the same action and therefore violated the coordinate jurisdiction rule)

Commonwealth v. Chambers, 15 EAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that a trial court's attempt to reform a bench-trial verdict to convict the defendant of additional offenses violated constitutional prohibitions on double jeopardy)

Salsberg v. Mann, 7 EAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding that at-will employees can maintain actions against third-parties for intentional interference with their employment relationships, but that they cannot maintain them against supervisors and other co-workers acting within the course and scope of their employment)

Commonwealth v. Smith, 6 EAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding that where a criminal defendant with a pending, facially untimely direct appeal files a petition for relief pursuant to the PCRA, it should be held in abeyance pending resolution of the timeliness question rather than dismissed as premature)

PIAA v. Campbell, 71-72 MAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Mundy, J.) (holding that the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletic Association is a "Commonwealth entity" and "state-affiliated entity" for purposes of the Right-to-Know Law, and, thus, its records are public records subject to disclosure under the Law)

Commonwealth v. Chisebwe, 4-7 MAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding evidence that a motorist refused to produce identification for approximately 25 minutes of a traffic stop was suffiicent to sustain convictions for failing to produce those items on demand)

Barris v. Stroud Twp., 68 MAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding Stroud Township ordinances limiting the discharge of firearms to, inter alia, shooting ranges, and limiting the construction of shooting ranges to approximately 35% of the Township do not violate the federal constitutional right to bear arms)

KEM Resources v. Ryvamat, Inc., 10 MAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Mundy, J.) (holding a claim for accounting under a paid-up oil-and-gas lease was subject to a six-year limitations period)

Vinculum, Inc., v. Goli Technologies, 74 MAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding that a party to a contract was entitled to attorney's fees and would have potentially been entitled to lost profit damages notwithstanding a limited non-compete agreement)

Ursinus College v. PWAB, 18 MAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding that a construction project at a college did not constitute a "public work" for purposes of the Pennsylvania Prevailing Wage Act)

Allocatur Grants

Galette v. NJ Transit, 204 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider several issues related to immunity in an action involving the New Jersey Transit Corporation)

Jackiw v. Soft Pretzel Franchise, 286 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider the Commonwealth Court's legal standard in addressing a dismemberment claim under the Workers' Compensation Act)

Commonwealth v. Lee, 180 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether Pennsylvania's sentence of mandatory life imprisonment for second-degree murder violates federal and state constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishments)

Bass Pro v. Harrisburg Mall, 450 MAL 2023 (granting review to consider the proper scopes of the duty to indemnify and duty to defend in the context of a particular lease)

Commonwealth v. Jeter, 193 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider the Superior Court's grant of relief on a claim of external jury influence)*

Halpern v. Ricoh U.S.A., 263 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether to overrule a prior decision holding that consumer-deceptive omissions are only actionable if the merchant has an affirmative duty to disclose the facts in question).

*The undersigned is counsel for the Appellee in Jeter

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...


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