Soverign Immunity; Collateral Order Doctrine

Brooks v. Cole, 238 A.3d 535 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2020) (unreported), allocatur granted Jan. 11, 2021, appeal docket 4 EAP 2021

On January 8, 2015, Wanda Brooks allegedly sustained injuries when she walked into an unmarked glass wall at the Family Court Building in Philadelphia. She filed a negligence action against the Family Court of the Court of Common Pleas of the First Judicial District. The Family Court filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that “the exceptions to immunity set forth in Section 8522 of the Sovereign Immunity Act (SIA), 42 Pa.C.S. § 8522, do not apply to the courts.” Slip op. at 2. In response, Brooks asserted that the Family Court was not immune from her negligence claim because it is a state government entity covered by an enumerated exception to immunity in the SIA for claims that arise from a dangerous condition of real estate owned or leased by the Commonwealth. The trial court denied summary judgment and the Family Court appealed.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court issued an order directing the parties to address the appealability of the order denying summary judgment in their principal briefs on the merits. The Commonwealth Court quashed the Family Court’s appeal concluding that the order denying summary judgment on immunity grounds did not constitute an appealable order. Generally, denial of a motion for summary judgment is interlocutory and unappealable. However, Pa. R.A.P. 313 provides for appeals of certain orders—known as “collateral orders”—despite the fact that they are not final orders. As the Commonwealth Court explained, an appealable collateral order has three elements: it must be separable from and collateral to the main cause of action, it must involve a right that is too important to be denied review, and it must present a claim that will be irreparably lost if review is postponed until final judgment in the case. The Commonwealth Court found that the Family Court’s appeal satisfied the first two elements of the collateral order doctrine but failed the third element because the Family Court could seek appellate review of its sovereign immunity argument following final judgment. The Commonwealth Court noted that its decision is “consistent with precedent recognizing that the collateral order doctrine is to be narrowly construed in order to buttress the final order doctrine, and by the recognition that a party may seek an interlocutory appeal by permission pursuant to Pa.R.A.P 312.” Slip op. at 15.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to consider one question:

Should this Court review the Commonwealth Court’s conclusion that an order denying a summary judgment motion based on sovereign immunity does not satisfy the collateral order doctrine of Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure 313, which conflicts with statutory law and case law that this immunity is “immunity from suit” and presents a matter of first impression for this Court on a substantial legal and policy issue involving absolute immunities?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.