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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. JOHN RYAN ET AL. (10/16/74)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: October 16, 1974.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
JOHN RYAN ET AL., APPELLANTS. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA V. VERNETTA TOLLIVER ET AL., APPELLANTS. WILLIAM ROSS, PRESIDENT, ET AL. V. FRANK SULLIVAN, PRESIDENT, ET AL., APPELLANTS

COUNSEL

Leonard M. Sagot, Thomas W. Jennings, Ettinger, Poserina, Silverman, Dubin, Anapol & Sagot, A. Benjamin Johnson, Jr. (representing Edward Johnson only), Philadelphia, for appellants.

Arlen Specter, Dist. Atty., Richard A. Sprague, First Asst. Dist. Atty., David Richman, Asst. Dist. Atty., Chief Appeals Div., L. A. Perez, Jr., Philadelphia, for appellee Com. of Pa.

Vincent J. Salandria, Asst. Gen. Counsel, Philadelphia, for appellees Frank Sullivan et al.

Jones, C. J., and Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Jones, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Roberts and O'Brien, JJ., joined.

Author: Pomeroy

[ 459 Pa. Page 151]

OPINION OF THE COURT

These appeals arise out of a strike which crippled the Philadelphia school system from January 8 to March 1,

[ 459 Pa. Page 1521973]

. The questions before us are the validity of an injunction prohibiting the strike and the validity of contempt proceedings instituted against various persons who violated the injunction.

On January 11, 1973, after two days of hearings in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the Board of Education of the School District of Philadelphia ("the School Board") obtained an injunction prohibiting the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Local 3, AFT, AFL-CIO ("The Federation") from continuing the strike. The members of the Federation refused to return to work, and shortly thereafter, the School Board instituted contempt proceedings against the Federation, its officers, and the members of its executive board. The Federation, its president, Frank Sullivan, and its treasurer and chief negotiator, John Ryan, were tried together before a jury and found guilty of indirect criminal contempt on January 25, 1973. On February 9th, following the denial of post-trial motions, defendants Ryan and Sullivan were each sentenced to serve not less than six months nor more than four years in the Philadelphia County Prison. In addition, Sullivan was sentenced to pay a fine of $5,000. Bail was denied pending the Federation's compliance with the injunction of January 11th. A petition for reconsideration of sentence was granted, and on March 14th, 1973, Ryan's and Sullivan's terms of imprisonment were reduced to not less than four months nor more than twenty-three months. In a separate proceeding, the twenty-one members of the Federation's executive board were tried together before a jury, and on February 9, 1973, likewise were found guilty of indirect criminal contempt. Following the denial of post-trial motions, each defendant was sentenced to pay a $250 fine, and to devote forty hours in a teaching, tutorial, counseling or similar capacity in a public or private institution or agency approved by the court.

[ 459 Pa. Page 153]

Direct appeals from the judgments of sentence following the contempt trials were taken to this Court under §§ 202 and 205 of the Appellate Court Jurisdiction Act of 1970.*fn1 Meanwhile, the Federation appealed to the

[ 459 Pa. Page 154]

Commonwealth Court from the decree of January 11th enjoining the strike. That court affirmed the injunctive decree on March 13, 1973,*fn2 and we subsequently granted allocatur.*fn3 The appeals were consolidated for argument, and will be considered together in this opinion.

I.

Liminally, appellants challenge the jurisdiction of the Court of Common Pleas to enjoin the strike which began on January 8, 1973. The factual underpinnings of this argument are as follows. The Federation and the School Board entered into a collective bargaining agreement which expired by its terms on August 31, 1972. On September 5th, the parties having failed to reach an agreement on a new contract, the Federation called a strike. The strike lasted until September 27th, when the parties entered into a memorandum of understanding reinstating the prior agreement until December 31, 1972. This memorandum of understanding was later extended until January 8, 1973. On January 3rd, the membership of the Federation voted to reject the report and recommendation of the fact finder designated by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to hear testimony on the impasse between the Federation and the School Board, and voted to go on strike against the School Board beginning January 8th. On the day following the strike vote, January 4th, the School Board instituted a proceeding in equity in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to enjoin the

[ 459 Pa. Page 155]

    threatened strike under § 1003 of the Public Employe Relations Act ("Act 195").*fn4 The Federation filed preliminary objections challenging the jurisdiction of the court and demurring to the complaint. A hearing was held on Friday, January 5th, before President Judge Jamieson, who ruled that under § 1003 of Act 195 no injunction could issue until the strike was actually in progress. The chancellor then scheduled a hearing on the School Board's complaint at 9:00 a. m. on Monday, January 8th, the day the strike was scheduled to begin.

At the hearing on January 8th, the Federation renewed its challenge to the jurisdiction of the court on the ground that the School Board's complaint was defective at the time of its filing and hence was not properly before the court. This argument is now urged upon us in the instant appeals. As a corollary to this contention, appellants argue that, since the jurisdiction of the court was not properly invoked, the injunction against the strike was a nullity, and appellants cannot be held in contempt for violating its terms.

We agree with the chancellor that he had no jurisdiction to grant an injunction on January 5th, before the strike began. There is no common law equity jurisdiction in Pennsylvania; a court may exercise only those equitable powers which have been specifically conferred by the legislature. Calabrese v. Collier Township Municipal Authority, 430 Pa. 289, 240 A.2d 544 (1968); Armstrong School District v. Armstrong Education Association, 5 Pa. Commw. 387, 291 A.2d 125 (1972). The scope of the chancellor's jurisdiction in the instant case is defined in § 1003 of Act 195, which provides:

"If a strike by public employes occurs after the collective bargaining processes set forth in sections 801 and 802 of Article VIII of this act have been completely

[ 459 Pa. Page 156]

    utilized and exhausted, it shall not be prohibited unless or until such a strike creates a clear and present danger or threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public. In such cases the public employer shall initiate, in the court of common pleas of the jurisdiction where such strike occurs, an action for equitable relief including but not limited to appropriate injunctions and shall be entitled to such relief if the court finds that the strike creates a clear and present danger to the health, safety or welfare of the public. If the strike involves Commonwealth employes, the chief legal officer of the public employer or the Attorney General where required by law shall institute an action for equitable relief in the court of common pleas of the jurisdiction where the strike has occurred or the Commonwealth Court . . . ." [emphasis supplied].

As the italicized portions of this provision indicate, it is only when a strike is actually in progress that a public employer may seek, and a court may grant, equitable relief. We cannot accept the School Board's argument, which prevailed in the Commonwealth Court, that because in the same labor dispute a strike "occurred" between September 5th and September 27th, a court can enjoin a second strike arising out of that same dispute in the interim period before the second strike begins. The Act defines a "strike" as

"concerted action in failing to report for duty, the wilful absence from one's position, the stoppage of work, slowdown, or the abstinence in whole or in part from the full, faithful and proper performance of the duties of employment for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions or compensation or the rights, privileges, or obligations of employment." 43 P.S. § 1101.301(9).

It would be inconsistent with this statutory definition to hold that a strike was in progress between September 28, 1972 and January 8, 1973, a period when, in fact, the

[ 459 Pa. Page 157]

Federation members were back at work under the memorandum of understanding of September 27th.

Having properly ruled that the School Board's application for injunctive relief was premature, the chancellor should have dismissed the complaint on January 5th. The defect of premature filing could not be cured by the subsequent occurrence of the threatened strike. As we said in Brenner v. Sukenik, 410 Pa. 324, 328, 189 A.2d 246, 248 (1963): "[t]he question of equity's jurisdiction must be determined on the facts and circumstances existing upon the date the action is instituted: Lafean v. American Caramel Co., 271 Pa. 276, 114 A. 622 (1921)." See also Bulkin v. Sacks, 31 Pa.D. & C. 501 (1937). When, instead of dismissing the complaint, the chancellor postponed hearing on its prayer for a preliminary injunction until the day the strike was scheduled to begin, he clearly believed that he was expediting the disposition of a matter of grave public importance without prejudicing the rights of either the Federation or the School Board; he assumed that the jurisdiction to enjoin found lacking on Friday the 5th would have ripened and become exercisable by Monday the 8th. But it was not merely the power to grant an injunction that was absent on the 5th; it was the right of the School Board to invoke jurisdiction at all. No right of action existed until the strike was in being. Where matters of jurisdiction are concerned, the courts must enforce the letter of the law. "No emergency, real or feared, and no alleged hardship to a complaining party, however great, can justify a court's entertaining and passing upon a subject matter which is not within its jurisdictional competence." Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 396 Pa. 34, 38, 152 A.2d 422, 424 (1959).

Moreover, to permit the court to entertain a complaint filed when no strike is in progress would undercut the legislative policy on which Act 195 is based. A major purpose of the Act is to encourage the peaceful

[ 459 Pa. Page 158]

    resolution of labor disputes between public employers and their employees through orderly procedures of collective bargaining.*fn5 Premature resort to the courts may frustrate this statutory purpose. The pendency of a suit seeking an injunction, even though not immediately brought on for hearing, can shorten tempers, harden bargaining positions, and distract attention from the negotiating process. It was to avoid such untoward consequences that the legislature provided that a strike by public employees must actually be in progress before injunctive proceedings under § 1003 of Act 195 can begin. Since the trial court had no jurisdiction to entertain the School Board's complaint, the injunctive decree was invalid and must be reversed.*fn6

II.

We agree with appellants' contention that the court's lack of jurisdiction to enjoin the strike served

[ 459 Pa. Page 159]

    to void the subsequent contempt citations stemming from the violation of the injunction. There is ample authority for the proposition that an error or irregularity in an injunction issued by a court of competent jurisdiction is no defense to criminal contempt proceedings for failure to obey the decree. Bowers v. Reitz, 315 Pa. 310, 172 A. 707 (1934); Silliman v. Whitmer, 173 Pa. 401, 34 A. 56 (1896); Howat v. Kansas, 258 U.S. 181, 42 S.Ct. 277, 66 L.Ed. 550 (1922); Ford v. Kammerer, 450 F.2d 279, 280 (3d Cir. 1971); United States v. Dickinson, 465 F.2d 496, 509 (5th Cir. 1972). On the other hand, it is equally well settled that a party may not be held in contempt of court for ignoring an order or decree which is void for want of jurisdiction in the issuing court. Schlesinger Petition, 367 Pa. 476, 81 A.2d 316 (1951); Commonwealth ex rel. Sage v. Sage, 160 Pa. 399, 28 A. 863, 34 W.N.C. 225 (1894). In re Green, 369 U.S. 689, 692, 82 S.Ct. 1114, 8 L.Ed.2d 198, 201 (1962); Ex parte George, 371 U.S. 72, 83 S.Ct. 178, 9 L.Ed.2d 133 (1962); Wilmot v. Doyle, 403 F.2d 811, 814 (9th Cir. 1968); Annot., 12 A.L.R.2d 1059 (1950). To this latter rule, an exception is recognized with respect to temporary injunctions designed to maintain the status quo while the court resolves the question of its jurisdiction. Since a court always has jurisdiction to decide questions of its own jurisdiction, violation of a temporary injunction of this sort will sustain proceedings for contempt of court, even if the court ultimately rules that it lacks jurisdiction over the parties or the subject matter of the case. See United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 67 S.Ct. 677, 91 L.Ed. 884 (1947); Annot., 12 A.L.R. 1059, 1078 (1950). This exception is inapplicable to the present case. The chancellor had resolved the question of his jurisdiction over the case before the injunction was granted. This question was settled in the trial court by the chancellor's ruling on January 5th that no injunction could issue before the strike began, and by his ruling

[ 459 Pa. Page 160]

    from the bench on the morning of January 8th, before hearings on the injunction began, that the court had properly retained jurisdiction over the School Board's Complaint.*fn7

The order of the Commonwealth Court in No. 461 is reversed, and the injunctive decree entered by the trial court is vacated; each party to bear own costs. The judgments of sentence in Nos. 317 and 318 are reversed, and the persons held in contempt discharged.

JONES, Chief Justice (dissenting).

I dissent. In finding that the trial court had no jurisdiction the majority has fallen into error. They have "confused the question of the jurisdiction of the court with plaintiff's right to obtain the aid of that court in his quest for what he deems to be his legal right. . . . Judges and lawyers sometimes . . . use the words 'jurisdiction' and 'power' in relation to courts as interchangeable. . . . [A court's] jurisdiction is not limited to cases in which a good cause of action is presented. . . . Jurisdiction relates to the field of litigation in which a court has authority to adjudicate. Power refers to what a court can do in that field under a given set of circumstances." Hellertown Borough Referendum Case, 354 Pa. 255, 258-260, 47 A.2d 273, 275-276 (1946).

[ 459 Pa. Page 161]

By the Act of June 16, 1836, P.L. 784, § 13, 17 P.S. § 282, the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County was vested with the power and jurisdiction of courts of chancery so far as relates, inter alia, to the "prevention or restraint of the commission or continuance of acts contrary to law and prejudicial to the interests of the community or the rights of individuals." Cognizant of this statutory grant, Mr. Justice Stern aptly stated in Main Cleaners & Dyers, Inc. v. Columbia Super Cleaners, Inc., 332 Pa. 71, 75, 2 A.2d 750, 751 (1938):

"There is thus established a general class of cases in which the court is vested with jurisdiction to grant injunctive relief. The fact that a labor dispute may be involved does not take the litigation out of this jurisdictional class. All that the Act of June 2, 1937, P.L. 1198 [Labor Anti-Injunction Act, 43 P.S. § 206a et seq.], in effect provides is that, in any case involving or growing out of a labor dispute, the court shall not have the power to issue injunctions to prohibit the particular acts specified in sections 6 and 7."

See also McWilliams v. McCabe, 406 Pa. 644, 179 A.2d 222 (1962); Bell Telephone Co. of Pennsylvania v. Philadelphia Warwick Co., 355 Pa. 637, 50 A.2d 684 (1947); Zerbe Township School District v. Thomas, 353 Pa. 162, 44 A.2d 566 (1945).

In the instant case, as in Main Cleaners & Dyers, the Court of Common Pleas was vested with jurisdiction to grant injunctive relief pursuant to the Act of June 16, 1836, supra. Section 1003 of Act 195 does not define the scope of the chancellors jurisdiction, as contended by the majority; rather this section merely limits the power of the chancellor to enjoin strikes by public employes after negotiation and mediation procedures have been exhausted.*fn1 Since the court below had both jurisdiction

[ 459 Pa. Page 162]

    and power to grant an injunction on January 8, I would affirm the order of the Commonwealth Court affirming the chancellor's decree.*fn2

In view of my resolution of the jurisdiction issue and since I feel the contempt proceeding stemming from the violation of that injunction properly conformed with Sections 1005-1010 of Act 195, 43 P.S. § 1101.1005-1101.1010, I would affirm the judgments of sentence in Nos. 317 and 318.


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