Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether a zoning ordinance that defined “family” as requiring “a single housekeeping unit” permitted the purely transient use of a property located in a residential zoning district. This question arose based on the increasingly popular concept of web-based rentals of single-family homes to vacationers and other short-term users (usually for a few days at a time). The Supreme Court concluded that pursuant to its prior decisions in Albert v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of N. Abington Twp., 854 A.2d 401 (Pa. 2004), and In re Appeal of Miller, 515 A.2d 904 (Pa. 1986), the purely transient use of a house is not a permitted use in a residential zoning district limiting use to single-family homes by a "single housekeeping unit." View "Slice of Life, et al v. Hamilton Twp ZHB" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from four separate, yet substantively similar, lawsuits filed by the county recorders in Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Berks Counties, Pennsylvania, and their respective Counties (collectively, the Recorders). The Recorders sued appellees, MERSCORP, Inc., its wholly-owned subsidiary, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS), and several financial institutions who are members of MERS (collectively, MERSCORP). The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the Commonwealth Court correctly determined that 21 P.S. 351, “Failure to record conveyance,” did not create a mandatory duty to record all mortgages and mortgage assignments in a county office for the recorder of deeds. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district court’s decision and held Section 351 did not create a mandatory duty to record all land conveyances. Relying on the Third Circuit’s decision, MERSCORP filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer to the Recorders’ complaints at state court, seeking dismissal on the basis that Section 351 did not provide a duty to record, and the Recorders did not have authority to enforce Section 351 in any event. The court overruled the preliminary objections, and denied MERSCORP’s request to certify its interlocutory order for an immediate appeal. MERSCORP then filed a petition for review in the Commonwealth Court; a divided Commonwealth Court reversed. The majority agreed with the Third Circuit’s conclusion in the Federal Action, specifically ruling “Section 351 does not issue a blanket command that all conveyances must be recorded; it states that a conveyance ‘shall be recorded’ in the appropriate place, or else the party risks losing his interest in the property to a bona fide purchaser.” The majority observed the plain language of Section 351 did not specify which party to a transaction must record a conveyance, nor did it state when recording must take place. The majority also recognized Pennsylvania courts have consistently interpreted Section 351 and other provisions of Title 21 as intended to protect subsequent mortgages and purchasers, and that the failure to record inherently provides a limited consequence — the loss of a priority interest. The majority found further support for its conclusion in precedent recognizing as valid even unrecorded interests in land. The majority noted the Recorders have a ministerial duty to the public to record and safeguard records presented to them for recording, but that duty does not confer standing to file actions to protect the public from “inaccurate” records in the MERS(r) system. The Recorders appealed, but finding no reversible error with the Commonwealth Court's judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "MERSCORP, et al v. Delaware Co., et al." on Justia Law

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James and Beryl Wicker signed a mortgage agreement for their residence in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in favor of Countrywide Bank, FSB (Countrywide) in February 2008. The mortgage agreement indicated that Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS) would act as nominee for Countrywide and its successors and assigns and was designated as the mortgagee. In an assignment of mortgage recorded in November 2011, MERS, as nominee for Countrywide, assigned the mortgage to Bank of America. In May 2012, Bank of America filed a mortgage foreclosure action against the Wickers alleging that the Wickers defaulted on their mortgage as of September 1, 2010. It further averred that it had provided the Wickers with the statutorily required foreclosure notice on September 21, 2011. Bank of America then moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted in part and denied in part. In so doing, the trial court narrowed the issues for trial to determining whether Bank of America had provided proof of: (1) the required foreclosure notices; (2) the date of default; and (3) the amount of indebtedness. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to consider the application of Pennsylvania’s business records exception to the rule against hearsay, pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 803(6) and the Uniform Business Records as Evidence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. 6108. The parties agreed that then-current Pennsylvania precedent allowed a records custodian to authenticate documents even if the witness did not personally record the specific information in the documents. The parties disagreed, however, as to whether a records custodian could lay a foundation for documents incorporated into the files of the custodian’s employer when the information in the documents was recorded by a third party, a process which was allowed under the similar but not identical Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6), pursuant to the so-called adopted business records doctrine. The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court in concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the testimony of the records custodian and admitting the documents under the facts of this case. View "Bayview Loan v. Wicker" on Justia Law

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Appellees Steven and Mary Szabo, owned real property where they operate a hair salon and skin care business. The property abutted Route 19 and Old Washington Road, was improved with a parking lot and commercial structure. Appellant, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT or Department) developed a road expansion plan to connect Route 19 with Old Washington Road by means of an exit ramp that would run across a section of the Szabos land, identified in the declaration of taking as Parcel 5. The Department attempted to purchase the property from the Szabos; however, the parties could not come to an agreement. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether a failure to file preliminary objections to a declaration of taking resulted in waiver under Section 306 of the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (Code). After careful review, the Court held that the declaration did not establish the extent or effect of the taking. Accordingly, the failure to file preliminary objections within thirty days of service did not result in waiver of the right to assert ownership and seek just compensation, and therefore the Court affirmed the decision of the Commonwealth Court to remand the matter for an evidentiary hearing. View "Szabo v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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Kenneth Taggart appealed a superior court order affirming a trial court’s verdict on mortgage foreclosure in favor of Great Ajax Operating Partnership (“Great Ajax”). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded Great Ajax or its predecessors failed to provide pre-foreclosure notice before initiating a second mortgage foreclosure action as required by the Loan Interest and Protection Law, 41 P.S. sections 101-605 (“Act 6”). In reaching this conclusion, the Court held the purposes of Act 6 were served by requiring each action in mortgage foreclosure to be preceded by a separate pre-foreclosure notice. A lender may not recycle a stale pre-foreclosure notice that it issued in connection with a prior complaint in mortgage foreclosure. Because Great Ajax failed to provide a separate pre-foreclosure notice before initiating the second action, the superior court's judgment was reversed. View "JP Morgan Chase Bank v. Taggart" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether an exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied ― the real property exception to governmental immunity ― and, in particular, whether the absence of padding on a gym wall, into which a student ran during gym class, causing injury, fell within the exception. In 2012, then-nine-year-old Jarrett Brewington ran in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in Philadelphia. While Jarrett was running, he tripped and fell, causing him to propel into the wall at the end of the gym, hit and cut his head, and lose consciousness. No padding covered the gym wall, which was made of concrete. Jarrett was later diagnosed with a concussion, was absent from school for one to two months after the incident, and continued experiencing headaches and memory problems years later. In 2013, Jarrett’s mother, Syeta Brewington, brought an action against Walter G. Smith Elementary School and the School District of Philadelphia (collectively, the “School”), alleging Jarrett’s injuries occurred because of a defective and dangerous condition of the premises, namely, the concrete gym wall, and that the School was negligent in failing to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall. In response, the School filed, inter alia, a motion for summary judgment, raising the defense of governmental immunity, and claiming that the real property exception to governmental immunity under the Act did not apply. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the lack of padding of a gym wall could constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, and, thus, fell within the Act’s real estate exception. View "Brewington v. Phila. Sch. Dist." on Justia Law

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In this premises liability case, John Stapas sued Giant Eagle and related entities (collectively Giant Eagle) for injuries he sustained at a GetGo convenience store. At the time of the incident, Stapas was 17 years old and worked full-time as a busboy and dishwasher at a restaurant, earning $8.25 per hour plus $14.00-$20.00 per shift in tips. In 2007, Stapas went to GetGo after his restaurant shift. At GetGo, he was talking to his friend, Crystal Stogden, who worked the night shift there. Minutes after Stapas arrived, a customer exiting the store held the door open for Brandon McCallister to enter. McCallister had been banned from patronizing that GetGo location. McCallister, who appeared intoxicated, started arguing with Stogden about his ban. Stapas was not initially involved in the argument. After about one minute, Stapas intervened to attempt to diffuse the argument and protect Stogden and another female employee, LaToya Stevens. Eventually, Stapas, McCallister, Stogden, and Stevens exited the store into the parking lot area. Outside the store, McCallister’s friend was waiting for him. Stapas told Stogden to get back inside the store, and Stevens remained outside. McCallister continued screaming at the employees as Stapas followed him to his vehicle, insisting that he leave. As they approached McCallister’s car, McCallister initiated a physical fight with Stapas. During the fight, McCallister pulled out a gun, which he had concealed on his person, and shot Stapas four times. Stapas missed six weeks of work while recovering from the injuries, and he continued to have daily stomach pain from the shooting. In this appeal by allowance, we consider whether Giant Eagle was required to object to the jury’s verdict awarding future lost wages to preserve its challenge to the verdict, which Giant Eagle labeled as a weight of the evidence challenge in its post-trial motion. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that an objection to a jury’s verdict premised on trial errors, correctable before the jury is discharged, must be raised before the jury is discharged. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Superior Court’s order awarding Giant Eagle a new trial on damages. View "Stapas. v. Giant Eagle" on Justia Law

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In 1999, Appellant Leo Dolan, Jr. and Cherie Dolan entered into an agreement of sale with Bentley Homes, Ltd., Garvin Mitchell Corporation, Chadwell Associates, L.P., Chadwell Realty, Inc. and Harrison Community Association (hereinafter “Bentley”) for a new custom house. Hurd Millwork Company, Inc. (Hurd) provided many of the windows used in the construction of Appellant’s home. Within a year, the house developed substantial defects, including air and water leaks around the windows. Hurd filed an action against Bentley for unpaid invoices related to the construction of Appellant’s home and other homes in the same development. Bentley filed a counterclaim against Hurd for providing defective windows. In October 2002, Bentley and Hurd entered into a settlement containing admissions that numerous homes in the development suffered from extensive defects and leaks. During the pendency of the litigation between Hurd and Bentley, Appellant experienced additional problems with his home including severe leaks, rotted wood and issues with a stucco wall. Bentley made some repairs to the home, but the leaks continued to worsen. Appellant hired a civil engineer to assess the home and determine what repairs were required to fix the problems with the house. The repairs and associated costs amounted to $826,695.99. The house was purchased for $1,941,669.00. In this appeal by permission, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was the proper role of an appellate court when reviewing a non-jury decision where it deems the trial court’s opinion pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(a) inadequate, but the trial judge is no longer available to provide a supplemental opinion. The Supreme Court concluded that where a Rule 1925(a) opinion is deemed inadequate and the trial judge is unavailable to provide a supplemental opinion, the appellate court should review the legal issues raised in the appellant’s Rule 1925(b) statement of errors complained of on appeal. When deciding issues of law an appellate court is not required to defer to the conclusions of a trial court. Applying this standard and scope, the Superior Court will be able to review the entire record and ultimately determine whether the trial court correctly decided the legal issues raised in Bentley’s appeal. View "Dolan v. Hurd Millwork Co., Inc." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine rightful title to a parcel of real property claimed by competing grantees, each of whom invoked a real or purported conveyance from the property’s owner. An additional issue under consideration was the application of res judicata and collateral estoppel during estate administration proceedings with regard to an earlier order of the Orphans’ Court determining the validity of a will. Relying upon a presumption that valid delivery of a deed occurs on the date of its execution and acknowledgment, the Superior Court held that title to the real estate vested in the grantee of the earlier, unrecorded instrument. The Superior Court further held that, where the Orphans’ Court determined that a will was valid and permitted a photocopy of that will to be probated, a participating party’s subsequent claim that the will was revoked was barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The Supreme Court determined the Orphans’ Court’s decision was supported by competent evidence, the court applied the correct principles of law in evaluating the question of delivery, and the court did not abuse its discretion in determining who possessed superior title to the property at issue by virtue of the 2006 Deeds. In reversing the Orphans’ Court’s decision on that issue, the Superior Court erred. When the parties litigated the alleged dissipation of estate assets, they did so within the context of those same estate administration proceedings. The Supreme Court concluded that a party’s challenge to the Orphan’s Court’s order did not arise within the context of subsequent litigation following a “final order,” but, rather, was advanced within the same proceedings as the challenged order; neither res judicata nor collateral estoppel served to preclude her claim. In this regard as well, the order of the Superior Court was reversed. View "In Re: Estate of Plance; Appeal of: Plance" on Justia Law

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In consolidated cross-appeals, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted review to consider whether three statutory provisions, the “Donated or Dedicated Property Act” (“DDPA”), the “Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act” (“Project 70 Act”), and the Eminent Domain Code, allow Appellant Downingtown Borough (“Borough”) to sell four parcels of land to private housing developers , Appellants Progressive Housing Ventures, LLC and J. Loew and Associates, Inc. (“Developers”). The four parcels comprised a public community park owned and maintained by the Borough, and were held by the Borough as trustee. After review, the Court vacated the order of the Commonwealth Court with respect to the Borough’s proposed sale to Developers of two southern parcels, reversed the order regarding the proposed sale by the Borough to Developers of two northern parcels, and reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court involving the Borough’s grant of easements to Developers over all parcels. The Borough was required to obtain court approval before selling the parcels, and easements over the land would have subordinated public rights to the parcels to private rights. View "Downingtown Borough (Friends of Kardon Park, Aplts)" on Justia Law