Appeals in cases of James B. Opie and Webster H. Opie, Jr. v. Glascow, Inc., Joseph P. Synkonis, Jr., Elmer Shemely, E. L. Woods, Upper Merion Township and Margaret Bennis, No. 76-00907; Helene Santangelo, Administratrix of the Estate of Judith Santangelo v. Margaret Bennis, Glascow, Inc., Upper Merion Township, E. L. Woods, Rinaldo D'Antonio, Dick Wendish, Sam Tate, Elmer Shemely, Joseph Synkonis, Jr., No. 75-13087; and James B. Opie and Webster H. Opie, Jr. v. Rinaldo D'Antonio, Richard Wendish, Samuel Tate, and Richardson and Gordon, No. 76-8126.
John L. Sweezy, Assistant Attorney General, with him Theodore A. Adler, Chief Counsel, for appellants-petitioners.
Jeffrey M. Stopford, with him Duane, Morris & Heckscher, and, of counsel, Beasley, Hewson, Casey, Colleran & Stopford, for appellees-respondents.
Judges Kramer, Wilkinson, Jr. and Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Blatt.
[ 30 Pa. Commw. Page 557]
Three trespass complaints have been filed in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas relating to an automobile accident which occurred on August 13, 1975 in Upper Merion Township between cars driven by James Opie and Margaret Bennis. Six employees*fn1 of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) were named as defendants in these complaints and filed preliminary objections in the court below alleging, among other objections, that jurisdiction properly lies with the Commonwealth Court pursuant to Section 401 of the Appellate Court Jurisdiction Act of 1970 (Act),*fn2 17 P.S. § 211.401, because they are "officers" of the Commonwealth. The lower court dismissed the preliminary objections, and the employees have now asked us to review the lower
[ 30 Pa. Commw. Page 558]
court's determination on the question of jurisdiction.*fn3 It should be noted that, although an order dismissing preliminary objections is interlocutory and ordinarily not appealable, Pa. R.A.P. 311 provides for an appeal as of right when authorized by statute, and an appeal from a ruling on the question of jurisdiction is authorized by the Act of March 5, 1925, P.L. 23, as amended, 12 P.S. § 672. Northvue Water Co., Inc. v. Municipal Water & Sewer Authority, 7 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 141, 298 A.2d 677 (1972).
This Court's jurisdiction is dependent here upon whether or not the six PennDOT employees concerned are "officers" of the Commonwealth, a term which is regrettably not defined in the Act. In an increasing number of cases, we have been asked to determine whether or not named individuals perform duties which would justify their being classified as "officers" for jurisdictional purposes, and we have frequently done so at the pleading stage in the proceedings at which time we have had no evidence before us as to the job functions of the employees and have had to rely on the allegations in the pleadings. The result has been a confusing and to some extent also a seemingly contradictory line of cases.*fn4
[ 30 Pa. Commw. Page 559]
As President Judge Bowman, writing for the Court in Schroeck v. Pennsylvania State Police, 26 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 41, 362 A.2d 486 (1976), explained, this Court's jurisdiction must be determined prior to any consideration of the immunity of the individual defendant and the status of the individual as an "officer" or as an "employee," for jurisdictional purposes, has to be considered, therefore, prior to any decision as to whether or not the individual concerned may be entitled to the protection of the absolute immunity doctrine. The definitions of "officer" and "employee," for jurisdictional purposes, currently used by this Court were first set out in Forney v. Harrisburg State Hospital, 18 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 17, 21, 336 A.2d 709, 711 (1975), where "officers" were described as "persons to whom are delegated some of the sovereign functions of government, to be exercised by them for the benefit of the public" and "employees" were described as persons who "merely exercise subordinate ministerial functions." Having now reconsidered these definitions, we believe that the term "officers," for jurisdictional purposes, should encompass only those persons who perform state-wide policymaking functions and who are charged with the responsibility for independent initiation of administrative policy regarding some sovereign function of state government. We do not believe that it was the intent of the General Assembly to give this Court original jurisdiction over cases where local courts can much more conveniently and properly make the determination as to the liability of state employees who function on an essentially local or regional basis, any more than we believe that
[ 30 Pa. Commw. Page 560]
the General Assembly intended to give this Court original jurisdiction regarding employees performing subordinate ministerial functions. In this light, therefore, we will review the lower court's determination that Joseph P. Synkonis, Jr., one of the eleven District Engineers for PennDOT, and five other engineers functioning in ...