Dragonetti Act Held Unconstitutional When Applied to Lawyers in PA
The Supreme Court has the power to regulate attorney conduct, which led a judge to find the Dragonetti Act, which is Pennsylvania’s wrongful use of civil proceedings, unconstitutional. The judge, Chester County Court of Common Pleas Judge Edward Griffith, found the Act legislates conduct that the Supreme Court has power over.
Later, the reasoning and holding of the judge’s decision was examined by Judge Mark L. Tunnell of Chester County, when it was then adopted. The judge came to the same conclusion as Griffith, finding the Act was unconstitutional when applied specifically to lawyers. A third judge, Judge Douglas Reichley of Lehigh County, came to the same conclusion on the Act.
This past April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was highly divided but ultimately overturned the trial court opinion in Villani v. Seibert, finding the Dragonetti Act was not constitutional, as supported by the previous judges. The majority opinion was authored by Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and supported by Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd, Kevin Doughtery and Sallie Mundy, with Baer and Todd writing opinions that agreed with Saylor. Justice David Wecht later joined Baer’s opinion “in substance” but never joined the majority opinion. Justice Christine Donohue, however, argued with a strong and extensive opposition.
While there was a large division, the most significant was between the justices in the Villani decision over the exclusivity of the Supreme Court’s authority to regulate the conduct of lawyers while practicing law. Saylor’s majority opinion asserts the Court should consider provisions over the exclusivity under Article V. Section 10(c) with extreme caution, which was an opinion shared by four other judges.
In the opinion, Saylor framed the issue as a generalized immunity for lawyers when it comes to the claims regarding wrongful use of civil proceedings, noting “many subjects of legislation and judicial rulemaking possess both attributes implicating this court’s rulemaking power and substantive law characteristics which are suited to the province of the political branch.”
Baer wrote, in his concurrence, that there shouldn’t be any circumspection of the Supreme Court’s exclusive authority but joins the majority opinion because the court’s power is limited under Article V. Section 10(c) to procedural issues. Baer did not see any encroachment on the constitutional power of the Supreme Court since the Act does not affect procedures in nature but focuses instead on the substantive rights of litigants.
On the other hand, Donohue forcefully rejected the idea of wariness of the Supreme Court’s regulation of attorney’s in the dissent. Donohue stated, “Until now, this court has not considered its exclusive power to regulate the conduct of lawyers as a mere ‘notion’ requiring any ‘circumspection,’ but rather as an undeniable statement of constitutional fact.”
The punitive damages under the Act are being questioned regarding constitutionality. This is because the Supreme Court has its own specific remedy to deter violations under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1023.4(a)(1) which warrants a more focused and specific appeal. The Villani decision has settled some of the overall questions regarding its constitutionality along with providing potential repercussions for future legislative attempts to regulate the conduct of attorneys. This decision suggests there may be more hesitation in future court hearings when attempting to strike down substantive attempts to regulate such conduct.
If you have questions about the Dragonetti Act or have witnessed or been victim to attorney misconduct, contact our team of lawyers at Bochetto & Lentz today.