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Dorsey v. Redman

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

July 21, 2014

ELVIRA A. DORSEY, AN INDIVIDUAL AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF ANDRE LEONTI, DECEASED, Appellee
v.
DONALD D. REDMAN, THE FAYETTE COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS, AND WESTERN SURETY COMPANY, Appellants

Argued October 17, 2012.

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered May 4, 2011 at No. 59 CD 2010, vacating the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County entered December 16, 2009 at No. GD 294 of 2008, and remanding. Trial Court Judge: John F. Wagner, Jr., Judge. Intermediate Court Renee Cohn Jubelirer, P. Kevin Brobson, Judges; Rochelle S. Friedman, Senior Judge.

For Donald Redman and Western Surety Company, Appellant: Marie Milie Jones, Esq., JonesPassodelis, PLLC

For Elvira A. Dorsey, Appellee: Charles Brian Hadad, Esq., Alison Teresa Smith, Esq.

JUDGES: BEFORE: MADAME JUSTICE TODD. 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.

OPINION

Page 333

MADAME JUSTICE TODD

In this appeal by allowance, we consider, inter alia, the applicability of governmental and official immunity[1] under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (" Tort Claims Act" )[2] with respect to a claim alleging a violation of bonding requirements mandated under the Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code (" PEF Code" ).[3] Ultimately, we hold the General Assembly intended that 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3172 of the PEF Code, which imposes liability on registers of wills and their sureties in granting letters of administration without security, created a targeted form of accountability for such registers, resting outside the scope of governmental and official immunity. Therefore, we find Donald Redman, the Fayette County Register of Wills (" Register" ), is not immune under the Tort Claims Act from liability for an alleged violation of Section 3172. Further, we also determine, inter alia, that, in assessing the applicability of the defense of official immunity pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8546(2), the question is one for the court to determine, albeit, here, on

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a more developed factual record. Thus, we affirm the order of the Commonwealth Court remanding the matter to the orphan's court for further proceedings, consistent with the distinct reasoning set forth in our opinion today.

On January 30, 2006, Andre Leonti (" Decedent" ), a resident of Brownsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, died intestate. Thereafter, Cheryl Keefer, a purported friend of Decedent, filed a petition with the Register for the grant of letters of administration which listed the heirs and personal assets of Decedent as " unknown" and indicated that there was no real estate. The Register refused to grant letters to Keefer because she did not have Decedent's death certificate, was not his next of kin, and, therefore, was not a person entitled to letters under the PEF Code. 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3155(b). In response, Keefer, through her attorney, filed a petition on February 1, 2006 to authorize the Register to issue letters to her without producing a death certificate and further directing the Mon Valley Hospital (" Hospital" ) to release the remains of Decedent for a funeral and burial. Attached to this petition was a copy of a purported power of attorney executed by Decedent to her on January 10, 2006. In this petition, Keefer asserted that she had been a friend of the Decedent for 30 years and that he was unmarried at the time of his death, had no children or relatives, and that his parents had predeceased him. Keefer further reported that the Hospital would not release the body to her for burial because she was not a relative and that Decedent's remains would only be released to her if she were appointed to handle Decedent's estate. Furthermore, Keefer contended that she could not have funeral and burial services without estate assets to pay for these expenses, as well as other financial obligations of the estate.

No one contested this petition, and, on the same day the petition was filed, the orphan's court issued an order (" Keefer Order" ) authorizing and directing the Register to issue letters " without the necessity of requiring a death certificate," and further ordering and directing the Hospital to release Decedent's remains to Keefer for funeral and burial services. In compliance with this order, the Register issued letters to Keefer, but did not secure a bond from her. Several months later, on April 5, 2006, Keefer filed with the Register an inventory of the estate, indicating a total property value of $242,677.88.

One month later, Appellee Elvira Dorsey, a resident of Texas who claimed to be Decedent's niece, became aware of Decedent's estate, and her right to assets from the estate, as the alleged sole surviving heir of Decedent. Appellee petitioned for the removal of Keefer as administratrix. The orphan's court granted Appellee's petition, issued an order (" Dorsey Order" ) removing Keefer as administratrix, and required Keefer to deliver to Appellee the custody and possession of Decedent's estate's assets. The court also authorized and directed the Register to grant letters to Appellee upon presentation of an appropriate petition for the grant of letters. Keefer, however, did not deliver the assets of the estate to Appellee. Appellee was unable to locate the estate assets, and, therefore, Appellee obtained a second order from the orphan's court mandating that Keefer deliver the custody and possession of the estate records and assets to Appellee.

On October 26, 2007, the orphan's court issued an order holding Keefer in contempt, sentencing Keefer to six months imprisonment, and directing that a verdict be entered in favor of Appellee and against Keefer in the amount of $192,769.19. The court's order further stated that " By copy

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of this Court Order, [Appellee] may reduce such verdict to judgment in any appropriate office, whether that is the Office of the Register of Wills, or the Prothonotary, or both." Orphan's Court Order, 10/26/2007 (R.R. at 452). On November 13, 2007, Appellee filed praecipes for entry of judgment with the Fayette County Prothonotary and the Register to enter judgment against Keefer.

Thereafter, Appellee filed a complaint, as amended, against the Register, individually, and Western Surety Company (" Surety" ).[4] In her complaint, Appellee alleged that the Register and Surety were liable for damages resulting from the Register's failure to secure bonding, which, Appellee asserted, was required by Section 3171 of the PEF Code when the Register issued letters to Keefer. Section 3171 of the PEF Code requires that, before letters may be granted to any personal representative, he or she must execute and file a bond in the name of the Commonwealth with sufficient surety in an amount the register deems necessary. 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3171. Pursuant to Section 3172, " [i]f any register shall grant letters without having taken such bond as is required by law, he and his surety shall be liable to pay all damages which shall accrue to any person by reason thereof." 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3172.

In response, the Register and Surety filed a motion for summary judgment alleging, inter alia, immunity from liability pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, which provides that (1) " no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property," 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8541; and (2) that an employee may be liable for civil damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by his or her acts, " only to the same extent as his employing local agency and subject to the limitations imposed by this subchapter." 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8545. Appellee filed a cross-motion for summary judgment alleging she was entitled to recover upon her verdict against Keefer, which was reduced to judgment, and that the Register was liable for the judgment under 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3172, since he did not secure a bond from Keefer when he granted letters to her.

The trial court granted the Register and Surety's motion, finding that the Register was entitled to immunity under Section 8541 of the Tort Claims Act, as the failure of a register to secure a bond is not one of the specific enumerated exceptions to immunity set forth in Section 8542 of the Act. Further, the trial court determined that the Commonwealth Court's decision in Antonis v. Liberati, 821 A.2d 666 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003), was dispositive, as in that case the Commonwealth Court determined that the office holder of an analogous position -- there, a recorder of deeds -- was immune from liability for failing to properly index a mortgage and note.

Additionally, the trial court opined that the defense of official immunity under Section 8546 of the Tort Claims Act, which provides an employee of a local agency a defense that the employee's conduct was authorized or required by law, or that the employee in good faith reasonably believed the conduct was authorized or required by law, was applicable, as the action of the Register was undertaken pursuant to the order of the orphan's court. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8546. Finally, according to the trial court, Surety was not liable, as its liability was based upon the liability of its principal, the Register. Appellee appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court, in a published opinion,

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vacated the trial court's order and remanded the matter for further proceedings. Dorsey v. Redman, 22 A.3d 274 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011). Specifically, the Commonwealth Court reviewed the duties of a register under the PEF Code and its provisions holding a register accountable for Pennsylvania's bonding requirements, in the event a bond was not secured when " required by law." 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3172. The court went on to trace the evolution of governmental and official immunity, focusing on the Tort Claims Act's general provision granting immunity from liability for claims against a local agency for damages, and the exceptions provided therein. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8541, 8542. The Commonwealth Court also surveyed the exceptions to government immunity contained in Section 8542, determining that none of the exceptions were applicable to the matter before it. The court then considered our Court's recent determination in Meyer v. Cmty. College of Beaver County., 606 Pa. 539, 2 A.3d 499 (Pa. 2010). The Commonwealth Court explained that, in Meyer, our Court rejected the Commonwealth Court's broad construction of immunity, reasoned that the language of the Tort Claims Act conferring immunity reflected traditional tort jurisprudence, and ultimately concluded that immunity " does not extend to all statutory causes of action," but only to those sounding in tort. Meyer, 2 A.3d at 503 & n.6. Thus, the Commonwealth Court reasoned that, after Meyer, it could not engage in a mechanical approach to governmental immunity whereby a local agency is found to be immune unless the claim falls within one of the eight exceptions found in Section 8542 of the Act. Additionally, the court distinguished Antonis on the grounds that, in that case, the statute upon which the claim was based spoke of " neglect," a tort concept, and no such requirement was present in the PEF Code. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the Register as a matter of law pursuant to Section 8541.

Turning to the question of official immunity, the Commonwealth Court addressed the Register's defense that he was, as an employee of a local agency, entitled to official immunity under Section 8546 of the Tort Claims Act, as his conduct was authorized or required by law, or he in good faith reasonably believed his conduct was authorized or required by law. The Commonwealth Court, focusing on the orphan's court's directive to issue letters to Keefer, found the question of whether the Register's actions were authorized by the court's order regarding Keefer was a question of material fact for the fact-finder, and, thus, concluded that summary judgment was not appropriate. Similarly, the court denied Appellee's cross-motion for summary judgment, as it determined that the amount of the bond required by the PEF Code was a factual issue for determination at trial. Thus, the Commonwealth Court found the Register was permitted to raise the defense of official immunity, but that this was a fact issue for trial, and remanded the matter for further proceedings. Senior Judge Friedman concurred in the result.

Our Court granted the Register's and Surety's (collectively, " Appellants" ) petition for allowance of appeal on ...


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