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Meyer v. Community College of Beaver County

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA WESTERN DISTRICT


August 17, 2010

DAVID J. MEYER, DALLAS BERRY, CHARLES J. BROWN, JEREMY LEE FOX, MARTIN GORECKI, ANTHONY J. HOLLIBAUGH, LISA L. SALYERS, ROCHELL SYKES, JOSEPH W. VUCICK, DAVID L. WIGLEY, DENNIS W. WOODLEY, CHRIS MACK AND TAMMY MUSLO, APPELLANTS
v.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BEAVER COUNTY, APPELLEE
TIMOTHY L. BARR, JOHN J. BATTAGLIA, MARK BROWN, CHRIS FERRAGONIO, CRAIG P. FRASER, MATT FRASER, IVAN GLENZ, JUSTIN HAFFEY, STEVE HALL, DUSTIN HUFF, JOSEPH A. KANAI, MICHAEL KEALLY, STEPHEN E. KUSMA IV, WILLIAM J. LATUSZEWSKI, JOHN KURT LEITSCHAFT, BOB MASILON, MICHAEL MATZIE, ALEXIS M. MILLER, JOSEPH A. MUSSER, TIMOTHY POLAND, BRIAN A. SALES, MATTHEW J. TEMPLE, TORIE TYSON, JARED UNEN, DALE A. VALENSON, MARK C. WILLIAMS AND AMY M. ZIMMEL, APPELLANTS
v.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BEAVER COUNTY, APPELLEE

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered February 11, 2009 at No. 1141 CD 2008, reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County entered June 17, 2008 at No. 11345 of 2002. 965 A.2d 406 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009) Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered February 11, 2009 at No. 1142 CD 2008, reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County entered June 17, 2008 at No. 11381 of 2002. 968 A.2d 235 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Saylor

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

ARGUED: April 13, 2010

OPINION

At issue is the Commonwealth Court's holding that governmental immunity extends to all statutory causes of action, whether arising in tort or contract, subject only to the eight exceptions enumerated in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

The two underlying civil cases are companion ones, involving similar claims by two separate groups of former students of Appellee, Community College of Beaver County, who were enrolled in a police training program. According to the averments of the complaints, each group had completed a substantial portion of the training when the College lost its certification under the governing statute. See 53 Pa.C.S. §§2161 -2171. There are some fairly egregious failures on the part of the College alleged, and, apparently, as a result of the decertification, the credits earned by Appellants may not be recognized elsewhere. In the complaints, Appellants advanced contract and warranty theories, as well as claims under the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.*fn1

Following the close of pleadings and discovery, the College sought partial summary judgment on the UTPCPL claims. In relevant part, it argued that the UTPCPL does not apply in the first instance to local governmental entities such as community colleges,*fn2 and, moreover, local agencies are immune from UTPCPL claims under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act,*fn3 as recodified in the Judicial Code. See 42 Pa.C.S. §8541 (providing that "no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency," subject to eight exceptions enumerated in the companion provisions of Section 8542).

Ultimately, the common pleas court denied the motions, on the ground that the statutory prescription for governmental immunity is directed to tort actions; the UTPCPL subsumes causes of action grounded in contract; and the College falls within the broad definition of a "person" subject to suit under the UTPCPL. See 73 P.S. §201-2 (defining "persons" subject to UTPCPL claims as "natural persons, corporations, trusts, partnerships, incorporated or unincorporated associations, and any other legal entities").

The College obtained certifications to support permissive interlocutory appeals, and the Commonwealth Court accepted the appeals and reversed in divided, en banc opinions. See Meyer v. Cmty. Coll. of Beaver County, 965 A.2d 406 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009) (en banc); Barr v. Cmty. Coll. of Beaver County, 968 A.2d 235 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009) (en banc). The majority holdings were based on the notion -- not advanced by the litigants that local agencies are immune from all statutory causes of action, whether arising in contract or tort, as long as they do not implicate any of the eight exceptions to governmental immunity. See Meyer, 965 A.2d at 413 ("[I]mmunity from statutory damages is only waived for negligent acts within the exceptions enumerated in 42 Pa.C.S. §8542(b)."); Barr, 968 A.2d at 239 (applying identical reasoning). In light of this perspective concerning broad immunity relative to statutory causes of action, the majority declined to address the arguments that were presented by the litigants, including the College's contention that the UTPCPL does not, on its own terms, apply against local agencies of the Commonwealth. See Meyer, 965 A.2d at 410. Judge Butler dissented in both cases, without opinion.

Appellants filed timely petitions for allowance of appeal, which we allowed to consider the correctness of the approach to governmental immunity crafted by the Commonwealth Court. As our review centers on a question of law, it is plenary.

Presently, Appellants criticize the Commonwealth Court for raising the dispositive issue sua sponte, highlighting that the College previously, consistently had accepted that the Tort Claims Act was concerned with matters arising in tort and not in contract. See, e.g., Brief for College, Meyer v. Cmty. Coll. of Beaver County, 965 A.2d 406 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009) (No. 11345 of 2002), 2008 WL 6041567, at *12-21 (reflecting the College's framing of its relevant contentions to the Commonwealth Court in terms of the tort/contract distinction applicable in the immunity setting). Appellants rely on the original title of the enactment -- the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act -- as encapsulating its focus; the statute's foundational concern with "injury to a person or property," as distinguished from disappointed contract-based expectations; and the numerous expressions of Pennsylvania courts reflecting this limited scope.*fn4 According to Appellants, the Commonwealth Court's holding is ground-breaking and "havoc wreaking," Brief for Appellants at 13, in light of the many statutory schemes providing for monetary redress against governmental entities. See, e.g., 62 Pa.C.S. §3935 (providing for damages, penalties and attorney's fees in connection with the implementation of the Government Procurement Code). Contrary to the Commonwealth Court's decision, Appellants assert that it matters -- and, indeed, remains crucial -- to the appropriate application of immunity whether a claim sounds in contract or tort.

According to the College, although the legislative conferral of immunity arose under the former Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act, upon recodification, it took on the broader title: "Governmental immunity generally." See 42 Pa.C.S. §8541. Thus, the College regards the tort rubric associated with the statute as outdated and as merely reflecting a misnomer. See Brief for Appellee at 6 (contending that the "commonly used 'Tort Claims Act' moniker erroneously used by the parties is simply a remnant from prior legislation which has long been repealed"). The College argues that there is no attempt, within the Tort Claims Act, as codified in the Judicial Code, to limit the immunity afforded to tort actions. With regard to the series of statutes referenced by Appellants embodying statutory damages remedies against governmental entities, the College acknowledges that targeted enactments control over the more general provision for governmental immunity. It maintains, nonetheless, that, in the absence of such specific provision for monetary relief against the government, immunity applies. See Brief for Appellee at 7-8 ("To suggest that the legislature enacted laws specific to government entities only to preclude any action against a government entity based on that law pursuant to governmental immunity is absurd."). Addressing the specific language of Sections 8541 and 8542, the College asserts that the claims against it "fall within the legislative definition of 'damages on account of any injury to a person or property,'" id. at 8, albeit without further elaboration of this position. Finally, the College envisions that the recognition of a tort-versus-contract distinction, for immunity purposes, will yield efforts on the part of litigants to subvert the statute's purposes via advancement of "pseudo-contract" actions.

Upon our review, we agree with Appellants that the approach taken by the Commonwealth Court is not sustainable. As Appellants ably explain, the language of the statute conferring governmental immunity, and of that implementing the exceptions, pertains to conduct causing "injury to a person or property." 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541, 8542. The Commonwealth Court previously has recognized that these terms reflect the main policy consideration historically underlying tort law, whereas, the central focus of contract law is the protection of bargained-for expectations. See Hazelton Area Sch. Dist. v. Bosak, 671 A.2d 277, 282-83 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996).*fn5

In line with the extant understanding of the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, we believe the Legislature centered the immunity there conferred on "injury to a person or property" as a reflection of traditional tort jurisprudence. Accord supra note 4 (citing cases reflecting the long-prevailing understanding concerning the Tort Claims Act's reach). We also agree with Appellants that nothing about the recodification of the immunity statute within the Judicial Code altered this substantive intent. In response to the College's contention that the title changed, we observe that the central conferral of immunity was captioned "Governmental immunity generally" from its inception. See Act of Nov. 26, 1978, P.L. 1399, No. 330, §201. Furthermore, we credit Appellants' position that, by suggesting that the Tort Claims Act impairs the enforceability of contractual relationships with the government, the Commonwealth Court's holding may have unintended effects which are best to be avoided.

Finally, in addition to defending the Commonwealth Court's holding, the College also seeks to advance the challenges that it actually presented to the intermediate appellate court, but which were not addressed there. Such arguments, however, exceed the scope of our allocatur grant, and it remains the purview of the Commonwealth Court to address them in the first instance.

We hold that governmental immunity does not extend to all statutory causes of action, regardless of whether they sound in tort or contract.

The order of the Commonwealth Court is vacated, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Jurisdiction is relinquished.

Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Messrs. Justice Eakin and Baer, Madame Justice Todd and Mr. Justice McCaffery join the opinion.

Madame Justice Orie Melvin files a concurring opinion.


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