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Carolee Medico Olenginski v. the County of Luzerne C/O Luzerne County Commissioners

June 24, 2011

CAROLEE MEDICO OLENGINSKI, PROTHONOTARY OF LUZERNE COUNTY, APPELLANT
v.
THE COUNTY OF LUZERNE C/O LUZERNE COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, THOMAS P. COONEY, LUZERNE COUNTY GOVERNMENT
STUDY COMMISSION, MARYANNE C.
PETRILLA AND STEPHEN A. URBAN



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dan Pellegrini, Judge

Submitted: June 17, 2011

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE PELLEGRINI

Carolee Medico Olenginski (Olenginski) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County (trial court) granting the preliminary objections filed by the County of Luzerne County c/o Luzerne County Commissioners; Thomas P. Cooney; Luzerne County Government Study Commission; MaryAnne C. Petrilla; and Stephen A. Urban (collectively, the County), dismissing her complaint in equity with prejudice and denying her motion for a preliminary injunction. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's order.

Olenginski is the elected prothonotary of Luzerne County and was elected to that office in 2009 to hold that position until 2014. In that capacity, she performs recording-keeping and related functions for the judiciary. On August 11, 2010, the Luzerne County Home Rule Charter Study Commission (Commission) recommended that the question of adopting a home rule charter be submitted to the electors of Luzerne County. The issue was placed on the ballot and on November 2, 2010, a majority of the electors of Luzerne County voted to adopt the home rule charter recommended by the Commission. The sections of the home rule charter that are applicable to this appeal are:

Section 12.04 - abolishes the office of the Prothonotary effective with the end of the term;

Section 12.07(e) - the duties and responsibilities of the Office of Prothonotary shall be taken over by a "Division of Judicial Services and Records" to be appointed by the County Council;

Section 12.08(b) - the duties and responsibilities of the Prothonotary shall be transferred to the Division of Judicial Services and Records;

Section 12.08 - the elected Prothonotary may remain with compensation and the title of "Prothonotary" until the end of the elected term but will have no duties and responsibilities because those will be taken over by the Division of Judicial Services; and

Section 12.02 - the effective date of the new form of government shall be Monday, January 2, 2012.

Olenginski filed a two-count complaint in equity seeking declaratory and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief; she also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. She challenged all of the above-listed sections of the home rule charter alleging that they violated the Separation of Powers Doctrine of the Pennsylvania Constitution, specifically, Art. V, Sec. 10 of the Pennsylvania

Constitution, because it allowed the Executive Branch to take over the filing and record-keeping duties of the Judicial Branch. She alleged that the Prothonotary's Office was a part of the Judicial Branch of government whose responsibilities, under the charter, would be assumed by the Executive Branch. In response, the County filed preliminary objections to the complaint in the nature of a demurrer alleging that they did not violate any Pennsylvania statute or the Separation of Powers Doctrine; the Prothonotary's Office was not part of the judiciary; and Olenginski lacked standing or capacity to sue.

The trial court granted the County's preliminary objections, dismissed Olenginski's complaint with prejudice and denied her motion for a preliminary injunction. The trial court explained that the prothonotary was not a member of the judiciary but rather someone who performed ministerial functions for the judiciary as prescribed by the judiciary. It relied on In Re Administrative Order No. 1-MD- 2003, 594 Pa. 346, 360, 936 A.2d 1, 9 (2007), where our Supreme Court specified that the "role of the prothonotary of the court of common pleas, while vitally important, is purely ministerial...[citations omitted]... As a purely ministerial office, any authority exercised by the prothonotary must derive from either statute or rule of court...[citations omitted]... Further, as '[t]he prothonotary is merely the clerk of the court of Common Pleas[,][h]e has no judicial powers, nor does he have power to act as attorney for others by virtue of his office.'" (Trial court's March 18, 2011 opinion at 4.) The trial court also determined that it was irrelevant whether the prothonotary's duties were conducted by an official who was elected or they were administered by an appointed individual. This appeal by Olenginski followed.*fn1

Olenginski contends that the trial court erred by relying on In Re Administrative Order in determining that the prothonotary is not part of the judiciary because that case arose out of a county clerk who appealed an administrative order directing him to seal certain records in his custody. In other words, that was an enforcement action, not an action brought to determine whether the prothonotary was a judicial officer and whether Doctrine of Separation of Powers and the independence of the judiciary would be violated if her position was occupied by a person appointed by the County ...


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