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JOHN C. BALSHY v. GARY W. RANK (04/02/85)

decided: April 2, 1985.


No. 70 M.D. Appeal Docket, 1984, Appeal from the Order dated July 6, 1984 entered by the Commonwealth Court in No. 61 T.D. 1983, transferring Action to Court of Common Pleas, Pa. Commonwealth Ct. , Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Hutchinson, J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Flaherty

[ 507 Pa. Page 387]


We granted the petition for permission to appeal of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Police, and John Balshy, Dean Shipe, Joseph Van Nort and John Holtz, individual Troopers of the Pennsylvania State Police, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 702 and Pa.R.A.P. 1311 et seq., from an interlocutory order of Commonwealth Court, 475 A.2d 182, retransferring to the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County a matter which had previously been retransferred from Common Pleas Court to Commonwealth Court, to decide which forum has subject matter jurisdiction of the underlying controversy. For the reasons which follow, we hold that exclusive, original subject matter jurisdiction is vested in the Court of Common Pleas.

The incidents on which the instant civil action is founded occurred during the investigation and prosecution, from approximately April 24, 1979 until appellee's acquittal on September 26, 1979, of criminal charges in connection with a homicide. After his acquittal, appellee commenced the instant civil action against appellants in Commonwealth Court. The complaint avers causes of action against all appellants under 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1983 and 1985 for violations of appellee's civil rights by the Troopers' allegedly obtaining a search warrant based on falsehood; obtaining an arrest warrant without probable cause; preventing appellee from seeing his counsel; fabricating, destroying or concealing evidence in the murder trial; and assaulting and battering appellee. Appellee seeks damages from the Commonwealth and the Pennsylvania State Police for failure to exercise due care in selecting, training and controlling the state troopers. He also seeks damages for battery, false imprisonment, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation.

Believing the action to be controlled by § 761(a)(1) of the Judicial Code, Act of July 9, 1976, P.L. 586, No. 142, § 2, as amended, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 761(a)(1) (Supp.1984-1985),

[ 507 Pa. Page 388]

    which generally vests in Commonwealth Court original jurisdiction of all civil actions against the Commonwealth government and its officers in their official capacity, on April 24, 1981 appellee filed a complaint in trespass in Commonwealth Court. That court, under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 761(a)(1)(iv) (1981) (since amended), which provided an exception to the jurisdiction of Commonwealth Court in "actions or proceedings in trespass as to which the Commonwealth government formerly enjoyed sovereign or other immunity," sua sponte transferred the matter to the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County. On September 20, 1983, Common Pleas Court ordered the matter retransferred to Commonwealth Court inasmuch as Common Pleas Court could find no exception to the exclusive original jurisdiction of Commonwealth Court under § 761 for civil rights actions. We disapprove the practice of Courts of Common Pleas refusing jurisdiction and attempting to " retransfer " matters to Commonwealth Court. The proper practice in cases such as this one would be for Common Pleas Court to dismiss the action and for the parties to take an appeal. No appeal was taken. The statute having, in the interim, been amended, Commonwealth Court then reconsidered its original order in light of the amended § 761(a)(1)(v), and again ordered the matter transferred to Common Pleas Court. On motion of the Commonwealth, the matter was certified for interlocutory appeal under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 702.

Both appellants, by the Attorney General, and appellee, by his counsel, have argued that jurisdiction of the underlying controversy is in Commonwealth Court under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 761(a), and that paragraph (v) does not provide an exception to that court's jurisdiction. Based on our analysis of this particular case, the result would be no different if the matter were decided on § 761(a)(1)(iv) of the 1980 amendment.

The pertinent statutory provision is as follows:

[ 507 Pa. Page 389]

    used in § 761, has been refined to include "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." Opie v. Glascow, Inc., 30 Pa. Commw.Ct. 555, 559, 375 A.2d 396, 398 (1977). The basis for this refinement was Commonwealth Court's conclusion that it was not the intent of the General Assembly to confer on that 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. Id. Commonwealth Court's conclusions were expressly approved by our Court. Rhines v. Herzel, 481 Pa. 165, 169, 392 A.2d 298, 300-301 (1978); Kulik v. Stotelmyer, 481 Pa. 57, 59, 391 A.2d 1313, 1314-1315 (1978). Although State Troopers may be commonly known as "officers of the law," as their duties do not involve the statewide formulation or administration of policy, they are not "officers" for purposes of conferring jurisdiction on Commonwealth Court under § 761. Thus, the actions against the individual state troopers are clearly not within the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court.

The more difficult question is whether Commonwealth Court has original jurisdiction with respect to the counts against the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Court held that these claims fall within the exception to that Court's jurisdiction "for actions or proceedings in the nature of trespass as to which the Commonwealth government formerly enjoyed sovereign or other immunity." § 761(a)(1)(v). Resolution of ...

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