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LEONHART v. MCCORMICK

June 27, 1975

Frank W. LEONHART, Jr., and Billie O. Sanner, Plaintiffs,
v.
Francis McCORMICK, individually and as Chief of the Financial Responsibility Division, Bureau of Traffic Safety of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation et al., Defendants


Weber, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEBER

Plaintiffs seek a head-on collision between the provisions of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code, Article XIV, Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Provisions, Act of 1959, April 29, P.L. 58 §§ 1413 and 1414 [75 P.S. §§ 1413, 1414] and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution of the United States. On the road thereto they also sideswipe Article V, The Judiciary, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, P.S., insofar as it vests judicial power in minor magistrates or justices of the peace.

 Plaintiffs, both of whom had been affected by the application of §§ 1413 and 1414, but in significantly different ways, sought a temporary restraining order, preliminary and final injunctive relief, declaratory relief, money damages, the determination of a class action, and the convening of a three-judge court. A temporary restraining order was originally issued to secure the restoration of the vehicle operator's and owner's privileges of Plaintiff Leonhart pending disposition of his claims, but this matter became moot before the hearing. The Commonwealth has permanently restored both plaintiffs' operators' and registration privileges because the revocations were not in accord with the statute or the policy or regulations of the Department followed pursuant to judicial construction of the statute. There has been no further move by Plaintiffs to secure any injunctive relief at this time by way of preliminary injunction. There is no basis for such relief.

 Plaintiffs allege jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343 based on causes of action arising under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1985(3). They ask for relief under the Declaratory Judgments Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201 and § 2202, the establishment of a class action under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 and the convening of a statutory three-judge district court under 28 U.S.C. § 2281.

 The civil rights cause of action is based on allegations that the state statutes on their face and as applied deprive plaintiffs of liberty and property without due process of law and deny them equal protection of the law contrary to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

 An examination of the pleadings and evidentiary material reveal that the causes of action of each of the two plaintiffs arise from significantly different factual situations.

 The plaintiff Sanner was sued in a Pennsylvania Magistrate's court in a civil suit for damages arising out of an automobile accident. Liability was found and judgment was entered against him, which judgment was recorded in the county Prothonotary's office. Under the Pennsylvania statute such a judgment debtor is subject to suspension of his operator's and registration privileges if no insurance or other security is available to satisfy the judgment. Sanner received a thirty day prior notice of the revocation of his operating privileges under the statute, which notice also informed him that he need not comply if he satisfied the judgment. Sanner then paid the judgment to the judgment creditor and requested the necessary satisfaction piece. This entailed some delay but when received Sanner took this to the Prothonotary and requested that notification be sent to the Commonwealth of satisfaction of the judgment. By delay or inadvertence the Commonwealth did not withdraw the order of suspension in time and a State Policeman came to Sanner's home to secure the license. It took Sanner about thirty days to secure a duplicate copy of the Certificate of Satisfaction and send it to the Commonwealth in Harrisburg to have his license restored. In fact it was restored. The Commonwealth admits its delay or mistake in overlooking the Certificate of Satisfaction and states that Sanner's license is now permanently restored. Sanner claims that he suffered monetary damage during the period of suspension and that he continues to suffer a detrimental effect because his present driver's license reveals that it was previously revoked and restored. The consequences of this alleged "bar sinister" are not otherwise pleaded.

 Plaintiff Leonhart was a sleeping passenger in an automobile driven by his wife which was involved in an accident. No evidence of Leonhart's financial responsibility to satisfy a judgment being of record he was called before a Hearing Examiner for the purpose of a preliminary determination of the likelihood of being held liable for the damages arising from the accident. Being informed by the Examiner that such a finding was possible and that he might avoid the operator's and vehicle license suspension by entering into an agreement with the claimant, Leonhart executed a judgment note for installment payments which the claimant duly filed with the Prothonotary of the county involved. Leonhart later defaulted under this agreement and notice of the existence of the unpaid judgment was given to the Department. His license was suspended but upon the Department being informed that the judgment on which the suspension was based was entered by confession and not as a result of a judicial proceeding in which liability was determined his license was permanently restored. It appears from the pleadings that Leonhart was notified of the suspension of his motor vehicle privileges thirty days prior to the effective date thereof, March 14, 1975, that he did not return the requested documents on March 14, 1975, that the application to this court for temporary restraining order was made and granted March 18, 1975 and that on the same date the Department issued an official notification of restoration of motor vehicle privileges to the plaintiff Leonhart. The Commonwealth bases its action in restoring the motor vehicle privileges on the holding of the Commonwealth court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Roeting, 7 Pa.Cmwlth. 317, 300 A.2d 125 [1973] which held that no suspension of motor vehicle privileges could be made under the Pennsylvania statute for failure to satisfy a judgment arising out of an automobile accident when that judgment was entered into by confession and not as a result of a judicial determination of liability.

 The plaintiffs have argued that the action by the Commonwealth does not render either plaintiffs' cause of action moot because of the possibility that the unlawful application of the statute against Leonhart might be repeated as to him or other debtors in the same position.

 THE THREE-JUDGE COURT CLAIM

 Neither plaintiff now seeks injunctive relief nor faces any future impairment of rights by the Commonwealth. Whether or not there was such a threat at the time of issuance of a temporary restraining order upon ex parte application and without notice at the time of filing the original complaint is not material; the Commonwealth did restore the licenses and/or registrations forthwith and permanently, not by reason of the injunction, but because of their own administrative procedures and regulations and in accordance with Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535, 91 S. Ct. 1586, 29 L. Ed. 2d 90 [1971]; Ortiz v. Depuy, 444 F.2d 429 [3rd Cir. 1971]; Miller v. Depuy, 307 F. Supp. 166 [E.D.Pa.1969], and Commonwealth v. Roeting, 7 Pa.Cmwlth.317, 300 A.2d 125 [1973].

 It is well settled in Pennsylvania that revocation or suspension of operators or owners privileges are not constitutionally permitted without a due process hearing on the issue of liability, even where a consent judgment has been entered on damages prior to any such determination.

 The Commonwealth had acknowledged its compliance with Commonwealth v. Roeting. By copies of correspondence filed with the court in this action it has shown that all prothonotaries in Pennsylvania have been instructed to notify the Department of Transportation whether a judgment was entered after a judicial determination of liability or by confession of judgment by consent to avoid the administrative oversight which caused Leonhart's temporary suspension. Under such circumstances our Court of Appeals in Ortiz v. Depuy, supra, found such administrative compliance by the state sufficient to sustain the dismissal of the federal court action.

 Sanner claims that the manner in which judgment was obtained against him lacks procedural due process in that he was tried before a minor magistrate unlearned in the law. The Supreme Court in ...


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