Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Pascal, et al. v. City of Pgh ZBA, et al.
Appellee Northside Leadership Conference (NLC), was a non-profit community development corporation that owned contiguous real property in Pittsburgh situated in a local neighborhood commercial zoning district designated for mixed use. In 2018, NLC applied for variances and special exceptions necessary to, inter alia, maintain the retail space, remodel and reopen the restaurant and permit the construction of six additional dwelling units. In 2018, a three-member panel of the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) conducted a hearing on NLC’s applications. Appellants Stephen Pascal and Chris Gates attended the hearing and objected to NLC’s applications. The ZBA ultimately granted the variance and special exception applications. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in approving a decision granting zoning relief despite: (1) the timing of the decision and (2) the alleged conflict of interest of one member of a three-member panel of the ZBA. We affirm in part and reverse in part, and remand for a new hearing before a different three-member panel of the ZBA.The Supreme Court found that the ZBA member ruling on the propriety of zoning applications brought by an organization on whose board she sat at all relevant times "so clearly and obviously endangered the appearance of neutrality that her recusal was required under well-settled due process principles that disallow a person to be the judge of his or her own case or to try a matter in which he or she has an interest in the outcome." The Supreme Court held the Commonwealth Court erred in rejecting appellants’ arguments on this issue and upholding the resulting tainted ZBA decision. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s order in part and reversed in part. The matter was remanded for a new hearing on the appellee NLC’s zoning applications before a newly constituted panel of the ZBA. View "Pascal, et al. v. City of Pgh ZBA, et al." on Justia Law
Sivick v. State Ethics Commission
John Sivick, a Lehman Township Supervisor, wanted his son to have a job, and hoped to arranged a position for his son with the Township. After leaning on his fellow Supervisors, Sivick successfully found work for his son on a Township road crew. Following an ethics complaint and an investigation, the State Ethics Commission found Sivick violated the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act in several respects. As the lone sanction relative to this aspect of the ethics complaint, the Commission imposed $30,000 in restitution. Sivick filed a petition for review of the Commission’s adjudication and restitution order in the Commonwealth Court, challenging, inter alia, the Commission’s adjudication of a conflict of interest violation as well as the legal authority to impose restitution. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the Commission's decision, and Sivick appealed further to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court reversed on both points. The Court found the Commission’s adjudication identified three distinct but interrelated actions as violating Subsection 1103(a) without making clear whether each cited basis was sufficient by itself, or whether the violation was based upon aggregating the cited wrongdoing into one course of conduct. "This creates a degree of uncertainty that is only exacerbated by the Commission's imposition of a single sanction. It is exacerbated further still, now, by this Court’s determination that the lone sanction imposed lacked a statutory basis - and was, in a sense, an illegal sentence." The case was remanded for further proceedings, including, in the Commission's discretion, the entry of a new adjudication, and if appropriate, the imposition of any sanction available under the Act. View "Sivick v. State Ethics Commission" on Justia Law
Ladd et al v. Real Estate Commission, et al.
Appellant Sara Ladd, a New Jersey resident, owned two vacation properties on Arrowhead Lake in the Pocono Mountains. Ladd started renting one of these properties in 2009 and the other in 2013 to supplement her income after being laid off from her job as a digital marketer. Eventually, some of her Arrowhead Lake neighbors learned of her success and asked her to manage rental of their own properties. Ladd considered “short-term” vacation rentals to be rentals for fewer than thirty days, and limited her services to such transactions only. Ladd acted as an “independent contractor” for her “clients” and entered into written agreements with them related to her services. In January 2017, the Commonwealth’s Bureau of Occupational and Professional Affairs (the Bureau), charged with overseeing the Commission’s enforcement of Real Estate Licensing and Registration Act (RELRA), called Ladd to inform her she had been reported for the “unlicensed practice of real estate.” Ladd reviewed RELRA and concluded her short-term vacation property management services were covered by the statute, and she would have to obtain a real estate broker license to continue operating her business. As Ladd was sixty-one years old and unwilling to meet RELRA’s licensing requirements, she shuttered PMVP to avoid the civil and criminal sanctions described in the statute. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the Commonwealth Court's holding that the RELA's broker licensing requirements satisfied the heightened rational basis test articulated in Gambone v. Commonwealth, 101 A.2d 634 (Pa. 1954), and thus do not violate Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution when applied to a self-described “short-term vacation property manager.” The Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth Court erred in so holding, and therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ladd et al v. Real Estate Commission, et al." on Justia Law
Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, et al.
Appellees Augustus Feleccia and Justin Resch were student athletes who played football at Lackawanna Junior College (Lackawanna), a nonprofit junior college. Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program. The Athletic Director, Kim Mecca, had to fill two trainer vacancies in the summer of 2009. She received applications from Kaitlin Coyne, and Alexis Bonisese. At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. In 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice, engaging in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” In this discretionary appeal arising from the dismissal of appellees’ personal injury claims on summary judgment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in: (1) finding a duty of care; and (2) holding a pre-injury waiver signed by student athletes injured while playing football was not enforceable against claims of negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness. After careful review, the Court affirmed the superior court’s order only to the extent it reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on the claims of gross negligence and recklessness. The Case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, et al." on Justia Law
Mitchell. v. Shikora
In a medical negligence case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the admissibility of evidence regarding the risks and complications of a surgical procedure in a medical negligence case. Consistent with the Court's recent decision in Brady v. Urbas, 111 A.3d 1155 (Pa. 2015), the Court found that evidence of the risks and complications of a surgery may be admissible at trial. View "Mitchell. v. Shikora" on Justia Law
BouSamra v. Excela Health
George BouSamra, M.D., along with his colleague, Ehab Morcos, M.D., were members of Westmoreland County Cardiology (WCC), a private cardiology practice. BouSamra and Morcos were interventional cardiologists. Westmoreland Regional Hospital was operated by Excela Health (Excela). As of 2006, approximately 90% of the interventional cardiology procedures at Westmoreland Regional Hospital were performed by WCC. As a result, most of the income Excela realized from interventional cardiology procedures at Westmoreland Regional Hospital stemmed from WCC’s procedures. In 2007, Excela acquired Latrobe Cardiology (Latrobe). Although Latrobe was a cardiology practice, it did not employ interventional cardiologists. Instead, Latrobe referred its patients requiring interventional cardiac procedures to other cardiologist groups, including WCC. Because WCC and Latrobe competed for patients, some animosity existed between the practices. In February 2010, Robert Rogalski (Rogalski) was appointed CEO of Excela, at which point he became aware of the acrimonious relationship between WCC and Latrobe. Seeking to control the market for interventional cardiology in Westmoreland County, Rogalski began negotiating with WCC intending to bring WCC into Excela’s network. The negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful, and in April 2010, WCC rejected any further negotiations. In June 2010, Excela engaged Mercer Health & Benefits, LLC (Mercer) to review whether physicians at Westmoreland Regional Hospital, including BouSamra, were performing medically unnecessary stenting. The results of the study were critical of BouSamra’s work, and concluded that he had performed medically unnecessary interventional cardiology procedures. While Mercer was completing its peer review but prior to another peer review, Excela contracted with an outside public relations consultant to assist Excela in managing the anticipated publicity stemming from the results of the peer review studies. BouSamra initiated this action seeking damages for, among other things, defamation and interference with prospective and actual contractual relations. As the matter continued through the phases of litigation, the parties disagreed as to the scope of discoverable materials. The issue raised before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether Excela Health waived the attorney work product doctrine or the attorney-client privilege by forwarding an email from outside counsel to its public relations and crisis management consultant. The Court concluded the work product doctrine was not waived by disclosure unless the alleged work product was disclosed to an adversary or disclosed in a manner which significantly increased the likelihood an adversary or anticipated adversary would obtain it. This matter was remanded back to the trial court for fact finding and application of the newly articulated work product waiver analysis. View "BouSamra v. Excela Health" on Justia Law
SCF Consulting, LLC. v. Barrack Rodos & Bacine
Appellant SCF Consulting, LLC lodged a civil complaint against Appellee, the law firm of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, in the common pleas court. Appellant averred that it had maintained a longstanding oral consulting agreement with the law firm, which the firm purportedly breached in 2014. According to Appellant, the arrangement was for the solicitation of institutional investors to participate in securities class actions, and remuneration was to be in the form of a two-and-one-half to five-percent share of the firm’s annual profits on matters “originated” by Appellant’s principal or on which he provided substantial work. Appellant claimed the consulting agreement qualified as an express exception to the anti-fee-splitting rule for an employee “compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.” Alternatively, Appellant argued Appellee’s attempt to invoke public policy as a shield was an “audacious defense” which, if credited, would perversely reward the law firm by allowing it to profit from its own unethical conduct. The county court agreed with Appellee’s position concerning both the nonapplicability of the exception to Rule 5.4(a)’s prohibition and the unenforceability of the alleged agreement. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the ultimate outcome of this case might turn on factual findings concerning Appellant’s culpability, or the degree thereof, relative to the alleged ethical violation. The Court held only that the contract cause of action was not per se barred by the purported infraction on Appellee’s part and, accordingly, the county court’s bright-line approach to the unenforceability of the alleged consulting agreement should not have been sustained. View "SCF Consulting, LLC. v. Barrack Rodos & Bacine" on Justia Law
McGrath v. Bur. of Prof. & Occ. Affairs
This appeal by allowance involved the automatic suspension of a nursing license based on a felony drug conviction. The question raised was whether, under the applicable statute, reinstatement of the license was precluded for a fixed period of ten years, or was instead permitted at an earlier date subject to the discretion of the state nursing board. Appellee held a license to practice professional nursing in Pennsylvania. In 2013, she pled guilty to one count of felony drug possession in violation of the Controlled Substance Act and received a sentence of probation without verdict. The Commonwealth then petitioned the Board to impose an automatic suspension of Appellee’s nursing license pursuant to Section 15.1(b) of the Nursing Law. As for the length of the suspension, the Board referenced two aspects of the Nursing Law reflecting different time periods. It first observed that Section 15.2 of the law prescribes a five-year minimum period. The Board then referred to Section 6(c) of the Nursing Law, which provided for a ten-year period with regard to the issuance of a new license. After quoting these provisions, the Board, without explanation, indicated that Appellee’s license would be automatically suspended for ten years. Appellee filed exceptions arguing that the ten-year suspension period was improper. Thereafter, the Board entered a final adjudication affirming the notice and order. A divided Commonwealth Court reversed the Board’s holding. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed: “it is not illogical that the General Assembly would provide for discretionary reinstatement of an automatically suspended license while also requiring a ten-year waiting period for a convicted felon who has never held a license. In the former case the Board has a record of interaction in which the licensee previously demonstrated the requisite skills, knowledge, and moral character to become a licensed professional, and has additionally fulfilled any continuing requirements for licensure over a period of time. … nothing in our decision prevents the Board from seeking revocation of a license, in accordance with the procedures outlined in the Nursing Law, following a conviction under the Controlled Substances Act. … If an automatically-suspended license is ultimately revoked, reinstatement would then be governed by Section 15.2.” View "McGrath v. Bur. of Prof. & Occ. Affairs" on Justia Law
In Re: Angeles Roca, Judge
Appellant Angeles Roca served as a common pleas judge in the family division of the First Judicial District, Philadelphia County. Her term overlapped with those of former Philadelphia Municipal Court Judges Joseph Waters and Dawn Segal. During this period, the FBI was investigating Waters’ activities; the investigation included wiretap surveillance of his telephone communications. Several conversations between Waters and Appellant were recorded in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Appellant asked Waters for advice on how her son, Ian Rexach, should proceed relative to a tax judgment. Appellant learned that Segal would not be presiding over these types of petitions after June 29, 2012; seeking to ensure that Segal presided over her son’s petition, Appellant called Waters to encourage him to intervene. Segal reviewed the petition for reconsideration and issued a rule to show cause why the relief requested should not be granted. Although Segal did not preside over Rexach’s case thereafter, she called Waters to advise him that she “took care of it” and to “tell her it’s done.” Waters called Appellant and discussed the matter, confirming that it had been “taken care of” by Segal. A default judgment against Rexach was ultimately vacated and the case against him was withdrawn upon his payment of $477 in taxes. In 2015, the Judicial Conduct Board sent Appellant informal letters of inquiry concerning her contacts with other judges. At the time, Appellant was unaware that her conversations with Waters had been recorded. In her written responses, Appellant made several representations which were inconsistent with the content of the recorded phone conversations. In 2016, the Board filed an amended complaint with the CJD alleging that Appellant had violated Article V, Sections 17(b) and 18(d)(1) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as well as several provisions of Pennsylvania’s former Code of Judicial Conduct (the “Code”). On appeal, Appellant alleged that the CJD’s removal-and-bar sanction was unduly harsh under the circumstances. She requestd a lesser penalty. In this respect, Appellant maintained, first, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was not bound by a state constitutional provision, which limited the Court's review of the sanction imposed by the CJD to whether it was lawful. In the alternative, Appellant proffered that the punishment was not lawful because it was inconsistent with prior decisions in cases where the misconduct was not extreme. The Supreme Court found the penalty imposed by the CJD was lawful. That being the case, the Court lacked authority to overturn it. View "In Re: Angeles Roca, Judge" on Justia Law
Lomas v. Kravitz
In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a trial court erred by denying a motion to recuse the entire bench of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Appellant James Kravitz was the sole officer, director, and shareholder of several companies known as the Andorra Group, which included Appellants Cherrydale Construction Company, Andorra Springs Development, Inc., and Kravmar, Inc., which was formally known as Eastern Development Enterprises, Incorporated (“Eastern”). Kravitz also owned a piece of property known as the Reserve at Lafayette Hill (“Reserve”). Andorra Springs was formed to develop residential housing on sections of the Reserve. In 1993, Andorra Springs hired Cherrydale as the general contractor to build the homes on the Reserve. Eastern operated as the management and payroll company for the Andorra Group. Appellee Roy Lomas, Sr., d/b/a Roy Lomas Carpet Contractor was the proprietor of a floor covering company. Cherrydale and Lomas entered into a contract which required Lomas to supply and install floor covering in the homes being built by Cherrydale. Soon thereafter, Cherrydale breached that contract by failing to pay. Lomas demanded that Cherrydale submit Lomas’ claim to binding arbitration as mandated by the parties’ contract. The parties arbitrated the matter, and a panel of arbitrators entered an interim partial award in favor of Lomas, finding that Cherrydale breached the parties’ contract. Following Kravitz’s unsuccessful attempt to have the interim award vacated, the arbitrators issued a final award to Lomas. Judgment was entered against Cherrydale in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Important to this appeal, then-Attorney, now-Judge Thomas Branca represented Lomas throughout the arbitration proceedings. Since the entry of judgment, Kravitz actively prevented Lomas from collecting his arbitration award by, inter alia, transferring all of the assets out of Cherrydale to himself and other entities under his control. In March 2000, Lomas commenced the instant action against Appellants. Then-Attorney Branca filed the complaint seeking to pierce the corporate veil and to hold Kravitz personally liable for the debt Cherrydale owed to Lomas. Approximately one year later, then-Attorney Branca was elected to serve as a judge on the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Prior to taking the bench, then Judge-Elect Branca withdrew his appearance in the matter and referred the case to another law firm. After several years of litigation, the parties agreed to a bifurcated bench trial. Although Appellants acknowledged that they were unaware of any bias or prejudice against them on the part of Judge Rogers or any other judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Appellants maintained that Judge Branca’s continued involvement and financial interest in the case created an “appearance of impropriety” prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct. Specifically at issue before the Supreme Court was whether the moving parties waived their recusal claim and, if not, whether the claim had merit. The Court held that the recusal issue was untimely presented to the trial court and, thus, waived. View "Lomas v. Kravitz" on Justia Law