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Meyer v. Community College of Beaver County

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 16, 2014

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, Appellees
v.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BEAVER COUNTY, Appellant; 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, Appellees
v.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BEAVER COUNTY, Appellant

Argued April 10, 2013.

Page 807

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered October 27, 2011 at No. 1141 CD 2008, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County entered June 17, 2008 at No. 11345 of 2002.

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered October 27, 2011 at No. 1142 CD 2008, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County entered June 17, 2008 at No. 11381 of 2002.

For Community College of Beaver County, APPELLANT: Anthony G. Sanchez, Esq., Andrews & Price

For The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, APPELLANT AMICUS CURIAE: Steven Keith Ludwig, Esq., Fox Rothschild, L.L.P.

For David J. Meyer, et al, APPELLEE: Thomas Simon Anderson, Esq., Mark F. Fischer, Esq., John P. Liekar Jr., Esq., Yukevich Marchetti Liekar & Zangrilli, P.C.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ. Former Justice Orie Melvin did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Mr. Chief Justice Castille and Messrs. Justice Saylor, Eakin, Baer and McCaffery join the opinion. Mr. Chief Justice Castille files a concurring opinion.

OPINION

Page 808

MADAME JUSTICE TODD

In this appeal, we consider whether the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (" UTPCPL" ), 73 P.S. § § 201-1 et seq., defines a " person" subject to liability as including both private entities and political subdivision agencies. After careful review, we hold that the UTPCPL defines a " person" as including private entities, but not political subdivision agencies. Accordingly, we reverse the Commonwealth Court's order affirming the trial court's denial of partial summary judgment on this issue and remand to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Community College of Beaver County (" CCBC" ) is a Beaver County, Pennsylvania political subdivision agency that, in exchange for tuition and fees, offers a variety of post-secondary educational services. Appellees are former CCBC students who, according to their allegations, enrolled in and completed substantial work in CCBC's police training program. However, their academic progress was cut short when, in 2002, CCBC's alleged malfeasance caused state officials to decertify the program, thereby rendering their educational and financial investments largely worthless. Appellees filed actions in the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County, asserting claims of breach of contract, breach of warranty, and, pertinent to this appeal, a claim under the UTPCPL's provisions providing a private cause of action for " persons" injured by other " persons'" employment of unfair trade practices. See 73 P.S. § 201-9.2.[1] After the close of pleadings and discovery, CCBC sought summary judgment with respect to the UTPCPL claims on two grounds. First, noting that the UTPCPL provides a cause of action against " persons," CCBC observed that the statute defines a " person" as " natural persons, corporations, trusts, partnerships, incorporated or unincorporated associations, and any other legal entities," see 73 P.S. § 201-2(2), and argued this definition excluded community colleges. Second, CCBC maintained that the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8541 et seq., provided it immunity from all statutory liability, including UTPCPL liability, not contained within the Tort Claims Act's enumerated exceptions. After a hearing on the matter, the trial court denied relief, and CCBC timely filed a permissive interlocutory appeal to the Commonwealth Court.

Initially, the Commonwealth Court reversed, declining to decide whether the

Page 809

UTPCPL permits actions against community colleges, but agreeing with CCBC's position that the Tort Claims Act provided it immunity from all statutory liability not expressly exempted. Meyer v. CCBC, 965 A.2d 406 (Pa Cmwlth. 2009) ( en banc ); Barr v. CCBC, 968 A.2d 235 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009) ( en banc ). Appellees timely sought allowance of appeal, and this Court granted review, ultimately holding that the Tort Claims Act provides immunity for statutory liability sounding in tort, but not in contract, and remanding for further proceedings. Meyer v. CCBC, 2 A.3d 499 (Pa. 2010).

On remand, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's order denying summary judgment. Meyer v. CCBC, 30 A.3d 587 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) ( en banc ). In a majority opinion authored by Judge Simpson, the court reviewed the UTPCPL's definition of " person," and, ultimately, found its use of the phrase " any other legal entities" rendered it ambiguous as to the inclusion of political subdivision agencies, such as community colleges. Accordingly, attempting to resolve the ambiguity, the court employed canons of statutory construction in order to discern legislative intent. Specifically, the Court reviewed the UTPCPL's public and private enforcement action provisions and, noting that only a " person" may seek relief as a plaintiff from others' employment of unfair trade practices, the court held that interpreting " person" to exclude political subdivision agencies would be absurd, contrary to the UTPCPL's purpose, and contrary to the public interest:

[A] construction under which a local agency is not a plaintiff " person" results in the inability of local agencies to recover restoration . . . to participate with general creditors . . . and to bring suit and recover damages, treble damages, costs and attorneys fees. . . . Thus, local agencies harmed by violations of the [UTP]CPL would have significantly fewer remedies than other legal entity plaintiffs. Concomitantly, those violating the [UTP]CPL have more limited liability if a local agency is a victim. How such a construction is in the public interest is unclear.
Moreover, the absurdity of such a construction is most evident with regard to [the] [s]ections . . . of the [UTP]CPL. . . which deal with suits in the public interest. Section 4 authorizes the Attorney General or district attorney to bring an action in the name of the Commonwealth to restrain practices in violation of the [UTP]CPL where proceedings would be in the public interest. Section 4.1 applies where such an injunction is entered, and it allows a court to also restore money or property " to any person in interest." Section 8(b) also applies to actions brought under Section 4 in the public interest, and it provides for recovery by the Commonwealth of civil penalties in certain circumstances. These provisions expressly authorize the Commonwealth to be a party plaintiff and to recover civil penalties in certain circumstances.
A construction under which a local agency is not a plaintiff " person" results in the inability of a local agency to recover past lost sums under Section 4.1. This is true even if suit brought in the public interest is successful and prospective injunctive relief is granted. In short, even where suit in the public interest is successful, a local agency would have no retrospective remedy, only a prospective remedy. Such a result is indefensible, clearly not in the public interest, and inconsistent with our charge to liberally construe the [UTP]CPL to achieve its objectives.

Id. at 594-95 (footnotes omitted). Likewise, observing that only a " ...


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