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Parnell v. Commonwealth, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 8, 2014

Claudette Denise Parnell
v.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, Appellant

Submitted February 28, 2014

Appealed from No. 1806 CIVIL 2013 Common Pleas Court of the County of Monroe. Judge Williamson, J.

Terrance M. Edwards, Assistant Counsel, Harrisburg, for appellant.

Brett J. Riegel, Stroudsburg, for appellee.

BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge.

OPINION

Page 841

P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge

Appellant Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (DOT), appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County (trial court). The trial court sustained the statutory appeal of Claudette Denise Parnell (Licensee) from DOT's three-month suspension of her operating privileges based upon her conviction for operating a motor vehicle without the financial responsibility required by law, which is a summary offense under Section 1786(f) of Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (" MVFRL" ).[1] See 75 Pa. C.S. § 1786(d)(1) (authorizing DOT to suspend vehicle operating privileges for three months where owner operates vehicle without required financial responsibility). We now vacate and remand for further proceedings.

Licensee was driving her vehicle on December 23, 2012, when she was involved in an accident. In the course of investigating the accident, the police learned that Licensee's insurance had lapsed on December 22, 2012, and issued a summary citation under Section 1786(f) of the MVFRL, to which Licensee pled guilty on February 25, 2012. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) 64a, 66a.) By letter dated March 5, 2013, DOT notified Licensee that her driving privileges would be suspended effective April 9, 2013, due to her traffic offense on December 23, 2012. (R.R. 61a-63a.) On or

Page 842

about March 6, 2013, Licensee filed a pro se appeal of the suspension notice with the trial court. (R.R. 5a-24a.)

Licensee subsequently obtained counsel and, through counsel, filed an Amended License Suspension Appeal on April 13, 2013, which, inter alia, incorporated Licensee's pro se filing by reference. (Certified Record (C.R.) No. 10.) The trial court initially scheduled a de novo hearing on the appeal for May 16, 2013. Licensee, however, filed a Motion for Continuance. ( Id. No. 12.) In that motion, Licensee contended that her counsel filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Insurance Department (Insurance Department), challenging the cancellation of Licensee's insurance policy.[2] Licensee requested that the license suspension matter be continued until the Insurance Department ruled on the complaint. The trial court granted the motion and continued the hearing until August 22, 2013.

On June 13, 2013, the Insurance Commissioner, by one of his investigators, issued its Investigative Report on his review of the cancellation of Licensee's automobile insurance policy for nonpayment of premium. (R.R. 70a.) The Investigative Report identifies the notice of cancellation date as December 5, 2012, with an effective date of December 22, 2012 (Cancellation Notice), copy of which was attached to the Investigative Report. The body of the Investigative Report provides, in relevant part:

The Insurance Department has concluded its review of the company's cancellation of your automobile policy.
Subsequent to the company's mailing of the notice of cancellation, your premium was received and accepted by the company. The cancellation notice has been rescinded and coverage will remain in force.
The company reports that they received your payment of $291.52 on December 24, 2012 which was used to reinstate your policy with a lapse in coverage from December 22, 2012 to December 24, 2012.
Thank you for the opportunity to assist you in resolving this matter.

(R.R. 70a (emphasis in original).) Under Act 68, either the insurer, in this case Nationwide, or Licensee had the right to dispute the findings in the Investigative Report by requesting a formal hearing. Section 2009(d) of Act 68, 40 P.S. § 991.2009(d). Licensee does not dispute that she did not seek any further review of the matter before the Insurance Department.

Instead, Licensee proceeded before the trial court, which held the continued hearing on August 22, 2013. DOT offered and the trial court admitted into the record Commonwealth Exhibit No. 1 (or C-1), which included: (1) DOT's official notice of suspension; (2) the record of Licensee's conviction for driving her vehicle without insurance, which DOT received through electronic transmission from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts; (3) the traffic citation upon which the conviction was based; and (4) Licensee's driving record. The Commonwealth then rested its case.

In response, Licensee testified that she lives in Penn Estates in East Stroudsburg, PA, and commutes to New York every day

Page 843

for work. Licensee testified that on December 22, 2012, she believed that she was current on her automobile insurance payments. She testified about the accident on December 23, 2012. She noted that she only learned that her policy had been cancelled for nonpayment of premium after she notified her insurance company of the accident. She contended that the insurer, without notice to her, changed the due date of the prior month's premium payment from the 27th to the 22nd of the month. When payment was due, Licensee testified that she would normally call the insurer and make payment over the telephone. Licensee testified that after filing her appeal of the license suspension with the trial court, she pursued relief from the Insurance Department. She reiterated that she had no idea on the date of the accident that her automobile insurance had lapsed. She testified that she did not receive notice from her insurer of a possible cancellation.

Licensee also testified regarding her payment history with her automobile insurer, as reflected on Petitioner's Exhibit No. 2. In response to a question about the reference to a notice of cancellation dated December 5, 2012, in the Investigative Report, Licensee testified that she never received the attached Cancellation Notice from her insurer. The trial court, thereafter, asked Licensee ...


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