DOH Denied My Medical Marijuana Permit Application. Now what?

At 1 PM today, the Pennsylvania Department of Health plans to announce the recipients of the first twelve permits to grow and process medical marijuana.  A live stream of the event is available at http://pacast.com/players/live_doh.asp.  Most applicants will be denied permits, because the odds are steep – only about one applicant in fifteen will be successful (except in Southeastern PA where only about one applicant in thirty will be successful). 

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PA Utility Eminent Domain Exercise Not Limited to “Absolute Necessity”

In a 5-2 en banc opinion issued December 22, the Commonwealth Court flatly rejected the notion that a utility must prove “absolute necessity” before resorting to condemnation.  Affirming the PUC’s grant of PPL Electric’s application to exercise its eminent domain power to acquire rights-of-way and easements over the private lands of protestants to construct a new eleven-mile transmission line across the Susquehanna River and a related substation, the Court reaffirmed prior case law adopting an easier hurdle for would-be utility condemnors.  As the Court reasoned:  “Under Protestants’ proposed standard, utilities could only seek approval … when a problem is looming and the resolution is ‘absolutely necessary.’  Utilities would essentially have to wait until an existing system fails before seeking approval of a project.  Not only would this approach be impractical and unrealistic, it would actually pose a danger to the health, safety and welfare of the public.”  Hess v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 1370 C.D. 2013 (December 22, 2014) (en banc).

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PA Supreme Court Eliminates Agency Appeal Waiver Trap

Last week on our list of waiver traps for Pennsylvania appellate practitioners (“Taking an Appeal in PA? 10 Waiver Traps to Avoid,” 24 Nov. 2014), we included the warning “be specific enough in your petition for review.”  Fortunately, effective January 1, 2015, that trap has largely disappeared, as the result of yesterday’s amendment to Pa. R.A.P. 1513(d).  That rule, which requires the petitioner from an agency order to include in an appellate petition for review a “general statement of the objections to the order or other determination,” has too often been the basis for a finding of waiver of issues not specifically mentioned, sometimes resulting in the outright quashing of an entire appeal on essentially technical “gotcha” grounds.  The rule as amended retains the requirement for a “general statement of objections,” but adds the important qualification that “the omission of an issue from the statement shall not be the basis for a finding of waiver if the court is able to address the issue based on the certified record.”  The Official Note explains that the purpose of the amendment is to “preclude a finding of waiver” if an issue that is briefed but omitted from the petition for review can be addressed by the court on the basis of the certified record.  In other words, if an issue is otherwise preserved, but overlooked in the petition for review, that fact will no longer be a basis for a finding of waiver.  One less thing to worry about for administrative law practitioners! A copy of the amendment to Rule 1513 can be found here.

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Taking an Appeal in PA? 10 Waiver Traps to Avoid


Pennsylvania’s appellate rules and the ever-evolving case law interpreting them can make it a challenge to even get to the merits of an appeal.  Don’t get caught on the wrong side of a waiver trap. Some reminders:

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NIMBYs and Environmental Groups Win First Round Before PUC Against Sunoco Pipeline


Sunoco’s proposed Mariner East pipeline that would transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) from Pennsylvania’s rich Marcellus Shale production in Western Pennsylvania to processing plants in southeastern Pennsylvania, received a blow from Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ALJs on July 23, 2014.

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PUC Divested Of Remaining Marcellus Zoning Duties


In Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, 83 A.3d 901(Pa. 2013) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of Act 13, the statute that removed from local zoning control the power to regulate oil and gas operations through restrictions on the placement and operation of  oil and gas facilities.  The Court remanded to the Commonwealth Court to consider whether other provisions of Act 13, including provisions that give the PUC power to review local zoning ordinances and withhold impact fees, remain viable.

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Sunshine Act: Fact Finding is not Deliberation

A government body subject to the Sunshine Act’s requirement of public decision-making is free to engage in non-public information gathering sessions, including private meetings with opposing parties in ongoing litigation in which a quorum of the agency members participate, so long as the actual decision-making, or “deliberation” takes place at a public meeting, the Supreme Court has ruled. In Smith v. Township of Richmond 34 MAP 2013, __A.3d __ (December 16, 2013), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “allowed appeal on a limited basis to examine whether the Sunshine Act’s definition of ‘deliberations’ is implicated where… an agency meets with various parties – including opposing parties in litigation – to obtain information designed to help the agency make a more informed decision with regard to settling the ongoing litigation.” In finding no violation and permitting the fact-finding sessions, the Court affirmed the decisions of the Commonwealth Court and the trial court.

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Supreme Court Orders Shorter Appellate Briefs

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted rule changes that will result in shorter appellate briefs based on a “word count” approach of the type used in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.  The current volume limits are 70 pages for principal briefs and 25 pages for reply briefs. Under the new rules, the volume limits are a “word count” of 14,000 words for principal briefs (approximately 56 pages assuming 250 words per page) and 7,000 words for reply briefs (approximately 28 pages assuming 250 words per page).  A brief based on word count must be accompanied by certification of counsel that the brief complies with the limit.  The rule permits continued use of a page count to determine volume, but at the reduced page count levels of 30 pages for principal briefs and 15 pages for reply briefs.

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Shorter Briefs, Fewer Waiver Traps

Under two new proposals to amend Pennsylvania’s Rules of Appellate Procedure lawyers will be writing shorter briefs with less risk of waiver.

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Timely Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund Claim Essential

Under Pennsylvania’s Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act, owners, operators and installers of underground storage tanks who incur liability for cleanup of tank spills are entitled to reimbursement from the Underground Storage Tank  Indemnification Fund under certain circumstances, but only if they advise the Fund of a claim within 60 days “after the confirmation of a release.”

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PUC’s Electric Transmission Line Environmental Impact Inquiry “Little More Than a Speed Bump,” Says Court Dissenter

Pennsylvania’s electric utilities need consider potential adverse environmental impacts only for the route proposed and the considered alternate routes when siting high voltage transmission lines, and need not consider the environmental impact of other potential engineering solutions considered to address the underlying reliability issue, said a majority of the Commonwealth Court in affirming the PUC’s approval of PPL’s Lehigh Valley Region transmission upgrade.  Board of Supervisors of Springfield Township v. Pa.PUC, ___ A.3d ___ (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012) (No. 1624 C.D. 2009, filed January 13, 2012).

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Unfair Trade Practice Claims Involving Utility Billing: PUC has Primary but Not Exclusive Jurisdiction

Utility customers who challenge billing practices under the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) must bring their challenge first to the Public Utility Commission (PUC), but may pursue their claim in civil court under the UTPCPL if the PUC concludes that the utility violated its tariff, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.

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Commonwealth Court OKs Nonmonetary Contract Claims Against Commonwealth in Casino Central Computer RFP Dispute

In a case arising from the award of the contract for the Gaming Board/Department of Revenue’s Central Computer Control System that monitors transactions in slot machines in Pennsylvania’s casinos, the Commonwealth Court has ruled that a claim based on a contract that seeks relief that is nonmonetary in nature (i.e., for declaratory relief and specific performance) can proceed directly in the Commonwealth Court.  Scientific Games International, Inc. v. Commonwealth, __ A. 3d __ (380 M.D. 2011, filed Nov. 30, 2011).

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PRESS RELEASE

KEVIN J. McKEON APPOINTED TO PA. APPELLATE COURT  PROCEDURAL RULES COMMITTEE

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No “Unintentional” Violation of Ethics Act Possible

Interpreting the “conflict of interest” provisions of Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act, the Supreme Court has ruled that “to violate the conflict of interest provision … a public official must be consciously aware of a private pecuniary benefit for himself, his family, or his business, and then must take action in the form of one or more specific steps to attain that benefit.”  Kistler v. State Ethics Comm’n,  __Pa. __, ___A. 2d ___ (2011) (59 MAP 2009, decided June 22, 2011).

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Former Insurance Department Counsel joins firm

Christopher KnightHawke McKeon and Sniscak LLP, is pleased to announce the expansion of its insurance regulatory practice, with Christopher J. Knight joining the firm as Of Counsel.

Chris spent nearly nine years as Counsel for the Pennsylvania Insurance Department as a member of the Governor’s Office of General Counsel, and will now use that experience and knowledge in his representation of insurance companies, producer licensees and other insurance-entity clients in regulatory, licensing and government compliance matters and related litigation.

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Harness Racing Commission’s Denial of Intervention “Clearly Unreasonable”

Finding “clearly unreasonable” the Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission’s denial of flat track Philadelphia Park’s motion to intervene in harness track Harrah’s Chester’s telephone account wagering application, the en banc Commonwealth Court reversed the denial of intervention and also (in order to “right the wrong”) vacated the Commission’s order allowing Harrah’s Chester to commence operations of the new remote wagering system. Bensalem Racing Association, Inc.v. Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission, _A.3d ___(Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (en banc) 1053 and 2710 C.D. 2010,
filed March 21, 2011) (Brobson, J.).

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Supreme Court Upholds Valley Forge Category 3 Slots License

Valley Forge Convention Center is a “well established resort hotel” that otherwise meets statutory licensing requirements for receipt of a Category 3 slots license, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in a 3-2 decision upholding the Gaming Board.

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Attorney-Client Privilege: A Two Way Street

Bringing welcome clarity for regulated entities, especially those that rely heavily on in-house legal teams whose members interact on a day-to-day basis with business decision makers, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week reversed the Superior Court’s narrow “client to lawyer” limitation on the attorney-client privilege and held that the privilege operates “in a two-way fashion to protect confidential client-to-attorney or attorney-to-client communications made for the purpose of obtaining or providing professional legal advice.” Gillard v. AIG Insurance Co., _A.3d ___(Pa. 2011) (10 EAP 2010; filed February 23, 2011) (Saylor, J.).

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Citing Unreported Opinions: Worth the Trouble?

Effective in 2011 unreported opinions of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court may be cited as persuasive authority, though not as binding precedent.

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