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July 2019 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Jul 31, 2019 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 15 precedential opinions (linked below) and 6 orders granting allocatur.

On the opinion side, although, as I mentioned last month, the “new” Court has been somewhat ambivalent in its attitudes toward the judicial role, with some Justices preferring the prudence (or, depending on how you view it, trepidity) of judicial minimalism and broad deference to the legislature, lower courts, and administrative agencies, and others preferring the boldness (or, depending on how you view it, folly) of a more powerful interpretive and adjudicative role, those in the latter camp are making significant strides. This is particularly so in cases involving fairly dry subject matter.

For example, in General Motors, LLC, the Court is ostensibly discussing issues regarding auto manufacturer's reimbursements to auto dealers for warranty repairs. If my previous sentence did not put you to sleep, however, you'll be glad to know that the major feature of the opinion is its discussion of deference to agencies. Indeed, the opinion, joined by 5 other Justices, suggests several bases for abandoning deference – (1) where an agency's interpretation is not “longstanding”; (2) where an agency's interpretation does not derive from its expertise; (3) arguably, agency bias; and (4) where the deference is outweighed by the Court's own independent analysis – and Justice Mundy, in dissent, advocates a reconsideration of deference to administrative agencies writ large.

Similarly, in Pa. Restaurant and Lodging Assn., the Court's decision hinges on the not particularly riveting question of whether the two local ordinances at issue – a sick leave ordinance and a disaster preparedness ordinance – are not subject to state preemption of local regulation of businesses because they are “expressly” authorized by other state law. More (judicially) conservative Justices would likely feel compelled to find some guiding principle – such as a clear statement rule requiring that a state statute specifically indicate that localities may, notwithstanding the preemption provisions, enact measures governing a particular subject matter – and leave it to lower courts to apply it. Yet, the Court here evidences that it is comfortable exercising its judgment in matters of degree, not just in this case, but the many it has hereby invited.

Whether the complexity and relative dryness of cases in which the Court is assuming an emboldened interpretive role is a coincidence remains to be seen, but it is not difficult to imagine that the factual and legal context makes the migration to a strong judicial role less alarming.

The Court's bolder approach may derive from any number of views: skepticism as to the degree to which legislatures, lower courts, and/or administrative agencies are truly deliberative, or, worse, concern that they have been politically or industry- captured; and the (remember, elected) Court's view as to its own political mandate spring to mind. And while avoiding capture in favor of deliberation may be a laudable goal, the approach does come with its own dangers, principally that the Court may find itself not only in over its head (adjudicating, for example, complex issues of environmental policy), but also underwater in a deluge of cases its approach invites. It will be interesting to see how the Court evolves and balances these concerns (or does not) over the next several years.

On the allocatur side, the Court's order in Stahley, to consider whether its decision in Batts is retroactive, is particularly noteworthy. Years ago, Pennsylvania led the country in the number of juvenile offenders serving mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and, after the United States Supreme Court issued its decisions in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (holding that juvenile offenders are entitled to individualized sentencing determinations based on myriad factors and that the application of such mandatory sentences constituted cruel and unusual punishment), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016) (holding Miller applied retroactively), all of those offenders became eligible for individualized resentencing. Yet, from Montgomery to the Court's decision in Batts, dozens were resentenced to disparate terms ranging from time-served to 42.5 years to life imprisonment, without certain necessary guidance as to how those re-sentencings were to proceed. (Additionally, as a side note, many of those offenders were plagued by ineffective assistance of counsel that likely led to higher-than-otherwise-likely minimum sentences.) Batts provided that guidance, but was cold comfort for those already resentenced to lengthy prison terms. If Stahley is successful and the Court deems Batts to be retroactive, it seems likely that each of those petitioners will be entitled to a new, re-re-sentencing hearing and, potentially, significantly lower minimum sentences.

Precedential Opinions

  • General Motors, LLC v. Bureau of Profl. & Occupational Affairs, J-108-2019 (Majority Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (holding that auto manufacturers may condition their provision of more favorable reimbursements for auto-dealer-performed warranty repairs no the dealers' waiver of statutory rights to other reimbursements under the Board of Vehicles Act, and interpreting a provision of that Act as providing that auto manufacturers may not impose surcharges on dealers who have exercised their right to certain reimbursement rates for parts, or labor, but not both).

  • In re: Appeal of the Board of Commissioners of Cheltenham Twp., J-89-2018 (Majority Opinion by Baer, J.) (holding that a provision of the Municipalities Planning Code forbidding retroactive application of new zoning laws to then-pending land-development applications also applies to ancillary zoning applications).

  • S & H Transp., Inc. v. City of York, J-99-2018 (Majority Opinion by Todd, J.) (holding that a freight broker's receipts passed onto freight carriers are not subject to the City of York's Business Privilege and Mercantile Tax).

  • Commonwealth v. Cousins, J-9-2019 (Majority Opinion by Todd, J.) (interpreting repeat-drug-offender sentencing provisions apply to virtually all drug offenses).

  • Menkowitz v. Peerless Pubs., Inc., J-13-2019 (Majority Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding the Superior Court failed to apply the appropriate standard of review and appropriate causation analysis in a defamation action).

  • Commonwealth v. Bell, J-103-2018 (Majority Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding statute permitting the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of an alleged DUI offender's failure to submit to chemical testing for alcohol does not violate the federal or state constitutional prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures)

  • Navarro v. Pa. State Police, J-38-2019 (Majority Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding that the denial of applications for return of firearms pursuant to federal statute prohibiting persons with certain convictions from possessing firearms which have moved in interstate or foreign commerce must be supported by evidence that the subject firearm moved in interstate or foreign commerce).

  • In re: Petition of Adams, 9 MAP 2018 (Majority Opinion by Mundy, J.) (holding that landowners seeking to open a private road pursuant to the Private Road Act must establish necessity of opening the road under the current, rather than a future or proposed, use of the property).

  • Exeter Twp. v. Pa. Lab. Relations Bd., J-4A&B-2019 (Majority Opinion by Mundy, J.) (holding that the a zoning officer is not ipso facto a management-level employee for purposes of the Public Employee Relations Act).

  • In re: Return of Seized Property of Lackawanna Cnty., 93 MM 2018 (Majority Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (holding that a supervising judge of a statewide investigating grand juries is authorized to issue related search warrants throughout the grand jury's jurisdiction and to adjudicate motions for return of property seized pursuant to such warrants).

  • Commonwealth v. King, 13 EAP 2018 (Majority Opinion by Baer, J.) (affirming a PCRA court's order forbidding the Commonwealth from privately interviewing the petitioner's counsel, citing the court's discretion in discovery matters and certain case-specific facts and arguments).

  • DeForte v. Borough of Worthington, 24 WAP 2018 (Majority Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (answering Third Circuit's certified questions by determing that whether a police department is subject to the civil service protections of the Borough Code, applicable to departments of three or greater, or the Tenure Act, applicable to departments of two or fewer, is to be determined by the number of officers with “normal working hours”).

  • Commonwealth v. Jones, 15 WAP 2018 (Majority Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (holding that a petitioner's trial counsel's failure to seek and obtain an alibi instruction did not cause prejudice, arguably limiting earlier decisions emphasizing a near per se rule that the failure to seek and obtain a warranted alibi instruction does cause prejudice).

  • Millcreek Twp. Sch. Dist. v. Millcreek Twp. Educational Support Personnel Assn., J-30-2019 (Majority Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that a grievance arbitration award satisfied the “essence test” in that it derived from the subject collective bargaining agreement, the arbitrator's interpretation was rational, and the award did not violate a dominant public policy).

  • Pa. Restaurant and Lodging Assn. v. City of Pittsburgh, J 72A-H-2018 (Majority Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that a Pittsburgh statute requiring employers to provide employees sick leave, which would otherwise have been preempted by a state statute forbidding localities from regulating business absent “express” authorization, was authorized by the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955, but that another Pittsburgh Statute, requiring building owners to, inter alia, conduct disaster preparedness education, was preempted by the state statute notwithstanding the Emergency Management Services Code).

Allocatur Grants

  • Renner v. Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh Cnty., 851 MAL 2018 (granting review to consider whether the Pennsylvania Human Relations Law applies to the Unified Judicial System and its employees, and, if so, whether such application violates the separation of powers even if the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission does not investigate or adjudicate complaints)

  • Northern Berks Regional Police Commn. v. Berks Cnty. Fraternal Order of Police, 797 MAL 2018 (granting review to consider whether the lower court improperly relied on speculation and to consider broadening the scope of review for police and firefighter collective bargaining arbitrations)

  • Commonwealth v. Stahley, 39 MAL 2019 (granting review to consider whether the Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d 410 (Pa. 2017), governing re-sentencing of juvenile offenders previously unconstitutionally sentenced to life imprisonment, applies retroactively)

  • In re: Consolidated Appeals of Chester-Upland School District, et al., 54-56 MAL 2019 (granting review of whether a taxing authority may consider income derived from easements in favor of billboard companies in assessing a property's value despite a statutory exclusion for “signs and sign structures”)

  • Pittsburgh Logistics Systems, Inc., v. Beemac Trucking, LLC, et al., 47 WAL 2019 (granting review of whether no-hire provisions between business entities are enforceable)

  • Commonwealth v. Nevels, 49 WAL 2019 (granting review of whether a person may be convicted for retaliation against a “witness, victim, or a party in a civil matter,” where he retaliated against a former or future witness in a criminal matter).

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is for informational and research purposes only and should not be construed as establishing a legal representational relationship between you and its author, or Woods Law Offices PLLC, in any way. If you have a legal problem, you should contact an attorney to discuss establishing such a relationship and obtaining such advice.

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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