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November 2021 Docket Review

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

This month, the Court issued 9 precedential opinions and 9 allocatur grants.

On the opinion side, the standout is J.S., in which the Court addresses the thorny issue of balancing students' free speech with the government's interest in protecting the school environment, in the context of a student's private communication of school-shooting related Snapchat memes with another student.  The case contained a lot of features that are often hazards for a state appellate court: a technological difficulty in attempting to understand the evolving nature of technology-based communications; a cultural difficulty in attempting to understand meme and youth culture and their concomitant layers upon layers of irony; a legal difficulty in attempting to divine how the meaning of caselaw from the Johnson administration applies today; and the political difficulty that the law might require the court to stand up for distasteful conduct in a school, particularly in an era of constant reminders of gun violence in schools.  But the Court, led by Justice Todd, was not only able to grok the memes, but ably explained their cultural position and the legal precedent, and arrived at a well-considered and well-balanced position, regardless of the political winds.  Indeed, the opinion called to mind some of the work of former Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, who was nearly universally renowned for his ability to distill extremely difficult concepts into clear and concise writing.  Or, as the folks on Reddit say, to "explain like I'm five."

On the allocatur side, there is not a case likely to generate much mainstream press, but it is worth noting that a full 4 allocatur grants involve areas of law that the Court seems to revisit all the time: in McGuire, the Court will address aspects of the Political Subdivision Tort claims Act; in Bell, it will address Pennsylvania's charter-school regime; in Mione, it will address another insurance "stacking" issue; and in Hawkins, it will address a particular application of the Right to Know Law.  Although I don't know the Justices' particular points of view, I suspect the Court does not perennially revisit these issues because they are interesting and enjoyable.  Rather, whether due to political compromises, or just plain poor draftsmanship, the organic law in these areas is often so vague, ambiguous, or incomplete as to require the Court to weigh in over and over again, diverting over the years significant time and energy to issues that the legislature could resolve much more expeditiously and, in some cases, without significant controversy.  That said, and perhaps because sovereign immunity and stacking waivers are not likely to be significant issues in the 2022 legislative elections, I expect the Justices will be discussing these issues for quite a long time.

Precedential Opinions

Hughes v. UGI Storage Co., 49 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Saylor, J.) (holding that a quasi-public entity need only have general condemnation authority to be subject a reverse condemnation action)

Peters v. Workers Comp. Appeal Bd., 1 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (providing history and guidance as to the application of the "traveling employee doctrine" as it pertains to workers' compensation benefits)

Commonwealth v. Dunkins, 45 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding a criminal defendant abandoned any constitutional privacy interest in data gleaned from college wi-fi network via acquiescing in its computing resources policy)

J.S. v. Manheim Twp. Sch. Dist., 2 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (adopting factors test for whether alleged threats are protected speech and holding school district improperly expelled student for sharing school-shooting-related memes with another student while off school premises)

Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment, Inc. v. Commonwealth, 19 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that "comped" concert tickets to casinogoers do not constitute "services" for purposes of calculating a casino's taxable revenues under the Gaming Act)

Commonwealth v. Pacheco, 42 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Baer, C.J.) (holding that orders authorizing the disclosure of cell-site location data pursuant to the Wiretap Act were the functional equivalent of search warrants)

Commonwealth v. Wharton, 788 CAP (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (rejecting numerous claims in a capital-PCRA appeal)

Quigley v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Rev., 20 EAP 2020 (Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that the Board erred in sua sponte raising a claimant's eligibility for workers compensation benefits)

Fox v. Smith, 39 EAP 2019 (Opinion by Saylor, J.) (holding that venue for actions for internet-based defamation properly lies in all venues of publication)

Allocatur Grants

Commonwealth v. Armholt, 315 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider constitutional and statutory challenges to defendant's prosecution as an adult for crimes allegedly committed when he was a child)

McGuire ex rel. Neidig v. City of Pittsburgh, 177 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider a federal civil-rights action's collateral estoppel effect in a state action vis-a-vis the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act)

Javitz v. Luzerne Cnty., 480 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court improperly augmented the elements of a prima facie whistleblower case)

Commonwealth v. Humphrey, 252 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider the proper application of a statute permitting the dismissal of criminal charges against mentally incompetent defendants)

Bell v. Wilkinsburg Sch. Dist. 166 WAL 2021 (granting review to consider whether certain Department of Education regulations require school districts to obtain prior Department approval of new plans to provide transportation to charter-school students)

In re: April 24, 2018 Decision of the Charleston Twp. Zoning Hrg. Bd., 190 MAL 2021 (granting review to determine the appropriate test for when a zoning ordinance effects a de facto taking)

Gibraltar Rock, Inc. v. Pa. Dept. of Enviro. Prot., 441 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider numerous issues in a zoning case involving a Montgomery County quarry)

Erie Ins. Exch. v. Mione, 326 MAL 2021 (granting review to determine whether prior decision invalidating household exclusions in auto insurance policies applies in the absence of an attempt to circumvent statutory "stacking" requirements)

Central Dauphin Sch. Dist. v. Hawkins, 287 MAL 2021 (granting review to consider whether a student education record is subject to disclosure under the Right to Know Law)

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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