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January 2021 Docket Review

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

This month, the Court issued 7 precedential opinions and 9 orders granting allocatur. Fresh off a November-December season in which it decided numerous, high-controversy, high-stakes election cases, the Court's January docket appears much more languorous.

On the opinion side, the Court's decisions address primarily narrow and uncontroversial (at least politically uncontroversial) legal questions, and, perhaps more interestingly, do it with a heap of judicial minimalism. Indeed, 3 of the 7 decisions essentially avoid a clear holding: in Cochran, the majority bends over backward to avoid addressing a line of Superior Court decisions regarding the timing of restitution orders in criminal cases (drawing Justice Wecht's dissent); in Coatesville Area School District, the court avoids a clear rule regarding whether and under what circumstances taxing authorities can litigate parallel appeals of property tax assessments in favor of a fairly mushy, fairly case-specific determination; and in Lamar Advantage GP Co., it seems, at least to the author's mind, to have used the City's inartful framing of its issue in its petition for allocatur as a basis to essentially refuse to dispose of its claim (drawing Chief Justice Saylor's dissent).

The third of these warrants some additional discussion. Litigants seeking allowance of appeal before the Supreme Court are required to demonstrate that their claims implicate something of greater importance than their own specific case — a novel legal issue, a jurisprudential conflict, or a matter of public importance, among other possibilities. Thus, many litigants in drafting their petitions for allowance of appeal find it attractive to state their issue itself with as that matter of greater importance. Here, the City framed its issue as whether the Commonwealth Court's opinion conflicted with another of its precedents. The Court, via Justice Wecht, explained that it was factually distinguishable, and, thus, did not conflict. Chief Justice Saylor, in dissent, suggests this is a somewhat obtuse resolution, as the substantive claim before the court was broader than a request that the Commonwealth Court hold fast to its own precedents.

We can find a lesson here for practitioners. If you are drafting a petition for allowance of appeal, you should frame your issue as broadly as feasible and in terms of your substantive claim, and be careful or comprehensive about adding “special and important” reasons. Indeed, the City might have merely framed its issue as whether the Commonwealth Court erred in rejecting its substantive claim, and explained that the claim implicated more than error review in the text of its petition. On the other hand, it might have framed its issue in terms of its substantive claim, and then appended language such as “a question of first impression for this Court, and one concerning which the Commonwealth Court's opinion conflicts with its prior precedent,” and so on. Had it done so, the litigants' time and expense would have consummated in an honest victory for one party and an honest defeat for the other. Instead, it ended in an unremarkable determination that two cases were factually distinct.

On the allocatur side, one case to watch will be Protect PT, which will provide some guidance regarding, and, perhaps, some teeth for appellate review of local zoning hearing board decisions in the context of unconventional oil and gas development. A difficulty of such review is that appellate courts are supposed to review an agency's determinations for capricious disregard of evidence, but simultaneously defer to their weight-of-the-evidence and credibility determinations, two principles which are often at odds because one man's capricious disregard is another man's simply not being convinced. One path the court may elect to take is requiring agencies to explain themselves. Indeed, it has charted this path before, initially by statutory interpretation in the context of workers' compensation appeals, see generally Daniels v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Bd. (Tristate Transp.), 828 A.2d 1043 (Pa. 2003), and later by the strength of its persuasiveness into other areas of the law as well. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. $6,425.00 Seized from Esquilin, 880 A.2d 523, 531 & n.7 (Pa. 2005) (civil forfeiture proceeding); Bethea-Tumani v. State Bd. of Nursing, 993 A.2d 921, 927 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010) (professional license proceeding). But given the practical and political realities attendant unconventional natural gas development, I would not be surprised if it adopted an even more stringent approach here.

Precedential Opinions

  • Sadler v. Workers Comp. Appeals Bd. (Phila. Cola-Cola Co.), 6 EAP 2020 (Opinion By Donohue, J.) (holding provision of the Workers Compensation Act does not permit termination of benefits for pre-conviction incarceration and that its termination of benefits for post-conviction incarceration does not violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection of the law).

  • Commonwealth v. Cochran, 77 MAP 2018 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (finding a claim concerning the timing of a restitution order essentially moot)

  • In re: Appeal of Coatesville Area Sch. Dist., 7 MAP 2020 (Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (holding that one taxing authority's failure to appeal a property tax assessment did not preclude another taxing authority's appeal res judicata)

  • PennDOT v. Middaugh, 45 MAP 2019 (Opinion by Saylor, C.J.) (holding that a unreasonable delay in the driver-license suspension process caused by PennDot or the courts can constitute a violation of due process and identifying relevant circumstances)

  • Commonwealth v. Montalvo, 774 CAP (Opinion by Todd, J.) (affirming PCRA court's grant of a new guilt-phase trial in a capital homicide case).

  • Lamar Advantage GP Co., LLC v. City of Pittsburgh Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 5 WAP 2020 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that the facts surrounding a vinyl-covered billboard on Pittsburgh's Mount Washington were distinguishable from the case relied upon by the City in its petition for allocatur and declining to reach the ultimate question of whether the billboard violated Pittsburgh's zoning laws)

  • PBS Coals v. PennDOT, 41 WAP 2019 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (reviewing the Commonwealth Court's determination of several issues in an eminent domain matter)

Allocatur Grants

  • Commonwealth v. Brozenick, 225 WAL 2020 (granting review to consider trial court's decision to reopen the evidentiary record in a criminal jury trial)

  • Protect PT v. Penn Township Zoning Hearing Board, 248 EAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court applied the appropriate standard of review in the context of a local zoning hearing board's evaluation of expert testimony)

  • In the Interest of Y.W.-B., 436 EAL 2020 (granting review of whether Child-Protective-Services home-searches violates federal and state constitutional privacy rights)

  • In re: Adoption of C.M., 640 MAL 2020 (granting review of whether the Superior Court misapprehended In re: Adoption of M.R.D., 145 A.3d 1117 (Pa. 2016) (relating to grandparent adoptions without full parental absence))

  • Brooks v. Ewing Cole, Inc., 267 EAL 2020 (granting review of whether an order denying summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity is a collateral order permitting immediate interlocutory appeal)

  • J.S. v. Maheim Twp. Sch. Dist., 312 MAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether state-promulgated student disciplinary procedures as applied to cases involving “true threats” violate due process because they do not provide accused students the right to subpoena evidence and witnesses and such provision is necessary to conduct “true threat” analysis)

  • United Blower, Inc. v. Lycoming Valley Water and Sewer Auth., 446 MAL 2020 (granting review to consider the appropriate calculation of “cost” under a provision of the Steel Products Procurement Act requiring 75% of the cost of such products to be “mined, produced, or manufactured” in the United States)

  • Commonwealth v. Green, 185 MAL 2019 (granting review to consider whether a warrant for the defendant's home and electronic devices was overbroad and/or unsupported by a demonstration of probable cause)

  • Commonwealth v. Edwards, 308 EAL 2020 (granting review of whether a prosecutor's intentional or reckless unconstitutional striking of members of a defendant's race from a jury bars retrial)

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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