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July 2021 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Aug 01, 2021 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 11 precedential opinions and 4 grants of allocatur.

On the opinion side, although the Court issued two headline grabbers this month -- Rice, which involves the Catholic-Church sex-abuse scandal; and In re: Amazon, which involves a lot of workers and some guy named Jeff who recently went to space for fun -- it also issued two opinions that will be of interest to law nerds like your author.  First, in Fitzpatrick, Justice Wecht grapples, quite successfully, with the thorny overlap of the rule against hearsay and the "state of mind exception" thereto, which feat was likely made all the more difficult by Pennsylvania's somewhat confused jurisprudence on the issue, and a bit easier by the fact that former-Chief Justice, now-Justice Saylor had identified the lions share of the problems with the rules in earlier writings.  The facts of Fitzpatrick were remarkable, a wife apparently murdered by her husband who had previously written, essentially, "I think my husband is going to kill me."  Such a statement is undisputably inadmissible hearsay in some contexts, and undisputably admissible "state of mind" evidence in others.  Justice Wecht wades into the thicket and provides a primer that is broad enough and accessible enough to make its way into a law school textbook.  

And lest this blog turn into an ersatz Justice Wecht fanpage, I'd also direct you to Mortimer, which is, interesting?  Some time ago, the Court granted allocatur to consider whether and under what circumstances to adopt "enterprise liability" in Pennsylvania.  That is, essentially, whether and under what circumstances a plaintiff with a judgment against one corporation might "pierce the corporate veil" and enforce it against another.  Many in the business law community (and, after they told their clients and spent some time explaining the often bizarre doctrine of veil-piercing, many in the business community) feared the Court was about to declare a proverbial open season on complex business enterprises.  But ultimately, to no end.  Although the Court provides a similarly academic review of corporate veil-piercing in Pennsylvania, he ultimately ends up declining to answer the question in any definitive fashion, and instead indicating that a plaintiff "might" avail itself of enterprise liability in extremely narrow circumstances, such as where corporations are completely unified in ownership and engaged in some type of fraud or wrongdoing.  Putting aside for the moment that the savvy crook will simply find a partner for his shell corporation, Mortimer's academic discussion may be all for naught: if and when the issue returns to the Court, who knows what its composition or its inclination will be?  On one hand, the future Court may read Mortimer, give due respect to its thoughtful analysis, and formally adopt its rule.  On the other hand, the future Court may declare the thrust of the opinion to be nonbinding dicta, throw it out the proverbial window, and do as it pleases.  

On the allocatur side, not much, but Price provides another example of the Court's increasingly tight leash on the intermediate appellate courts.  In that case, the Court appears poised to consider whether the Superior Court improperly entertained a waived claim and improperly reversed on an alternative basis.  Whether or not it did so, it is not typical of the Court to play such small ball: generally, simple errors in case-specific circumstances are left to the lower courts' own institutional bailiwicks, and allocatur is reserved for issues with more widespread application.  The Court's apparent imposition of a closer watch on the lower courts may reflect a change in its institutional values, political disagreement with the more-conservative lower courts, or a concern that the Superior Court -- the busiest court in the nation -- is unable to keep its assembly-line-like docket moving swiftly without a backstop.  In any event, litigants should take note that the Court is increasingly comfortable taking up review to correct clear errors.

Precedential Opinions

Commonwealth v. Fitzpatrick, 6 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding homicide victim's statements as to who would kill her were not admissible pursuant to the "state of mind" exception to the hearsay rule and creating a clear analytical framework for the admissibility of similar statements)

Commonwealth v. Satterfield, 66 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that convictions for "accidents involving death or personal injury," commonly known as hit-and-run, are subject to but one sentence per accident, rather than one sentence per death or personal injury).

Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth, 64 MAP 2019 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that certain diversion of revenue generated from Commonwealth oil-and-gas leases to the General Fund violated the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution, which requires that such revenues be held in trust for the conservation and maintenance of public natural resources)

Mortimer v. McCool, 37 & 38 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding, arguably in dicta, that "enterprise liability" whereby judgments against one corporation may be enforced against affiliated corporations in alter-ego/fraud situations, but declining to apply it to the case at bar, in which there was not uniformity in the ownership of the corporations)

In re: Adoption of C.M., 1 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (rejecting the Superior Court's reversal of termination of father's parental rights on the ground that mother was engaged in "custody gamesmanship" in voluntarily relinquishing parental rights but continuing to live with the pre-adoptive maternal grandparents and to maintain a parental role, but affirming on the ground that the termination was otherwise unsupported by sufficient evidence)

U.S. Venture, Inc. v. Commonwealth, 51 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that the Commonwealth is immune from claims arising from certain grant agreements)

McKelvey v. Pa. Dept. of Health, 3 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (providing thorough analysis of Right-to-Know-Law requests for various medical marijuana permit records)

McCloskey v. Pa. Pub. Util. Commn., 24-26 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Baer, C.J.) (affirming Commonwealth Court's holding that public utilities must revise distribution system improvement charges to reflect tax deductions and credits)

City of Johnstown v. WCAB (Sevanick)28 WAP 2020 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that certain firefighter cancer claims are not subject to the default, 300-week time limit applicable to most workers' disability or death claims under the Workers' Compensation Act, but, rather, a separate 600-week statutory time limit)

Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, 3 WAP 2020 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that various claims arising out of the Catholic-Church sex-abuse scandal were barred by the applicable statute of limitations)

Commonwealth v. Baker-Myers, 54 WAP 2019 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding that a defendant convicted of corruption of minors under statutory subsection requiring a sexual offense, but acquitted of all sexual offenses, was entitled to a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the jury's verdict)

In re:, Inc., Fulfillment Center Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Wage and Hour Litigation (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that an employee's time spent on an employer's premises awaiting mandatory security screening constitutes time "worked" for purposes of Pennsylvania's Minimum Wage Act, and that the maxim de minimum non curat lex, or, the law does not care for trivialities, does not apply to time worked for purposes of that Act)

Allocatur Grants

Owens v. Ardmore Automotive, 58 EAL 2021 (granting review of Superior Court's denial of a stay to determine whether the plaintiffs' claims are barred by the Workers' Compensation Act's exclusivity clause)

Commonwealth v. Price, 54 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider whether the Superior Court erred in reversing a suppression order via application of inevitable discovery principles not properly before it)

In re: Private Complaint Filed By Luay Ajaj, 324 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider whether the Superior Court erred in affirming a lower court's order overturning the Commonwealth's disapproval of a private criminal complaint)

Commonwealth v. Gallaway, 40 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider the admissibility of a video depicting the defendant in jail garb)

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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