The Dragonetti Act is not unconstitutional as applied to attorneys, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled in a decision that could have ended several high-profile litigation matters.
A divided Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in Villani v. Seibert. The opinion was issued April 26.
The case stemmed from a dispute between Frederic John Seibert Jr., his mother Mary Seibert, and Jean Louis Villani over a strip of land. Attorney Thomas D. Schneider eventually filed a lawsuit against the Seiberts on behalf of Villani. Contending that the suit was frivolous and deliberately vindictive, the Seiberts sued Villani and Schneider for wrongful use of civil proceeding.
Schneider’s counsel had argued to the Supreme Court that the Dragonetti Act, which allows defendants in allegedly frivolous lawsuits to sue those who pursued those claims, infringed on the Supreme Court’s exclusive ability to regulate the practice of law.
“There is no directed challenge to the punitive damages aspect here … and no assertion that appellee had been vying, in good faith, for a reversal of precedent when the underlying land-ownership litigation was commenced and pursued. Rather, a far broader lawyer-immunity focus has been engrafted onto this case,” Saylor said. “Responding to the matter as so framed, we decline to recognize generalized attorney immunity from the substantive principles of tort law embodied in the Dragonetti Act.”
Saylor added that Schneider’s arguments would best be presented to the state General Assembly.
Paul Troy, of Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer, who represented Schneider, said he was surprised by the court’s discussion of “immunizing attorneys.”
“The majority opinion does not discuss the common-law torts of malicious prosecution, abuse of process, or malicious use of civil process,” Troy said. “If the court found the Dragonetti statute unconstitutional, nothing in that decision would have in any way immunized attorneys from those three common-law torts, which existed before the Dragonetti statute and still exist today.”
Mark W. Tanner of Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock Dodig, who represented the Seiberts, said he was pleased by the court’s decision.
“I don’t believe that the Pennsylvania Constitution ever provided any sort of immunity for lawyers who engage in tortious misconduct, and we’re pleased that that principle has now been established,” Tanner said.
During the argument session in December, several justices grappled with the argument that a cause of action that existed for years in common law could suddenly violate the constitution once it is codified by the state legislature.
In August 2015, Chester County Court of Common Pleas Judge Edward Griffith, however, agreed with the defendants’ argument that the Dragonetti Act is unconstitutional as applied to attorneys, and tossed the Seiberts’ case at the preliminary objection stage. In his opinion, he called the act “a legislative attempt to intrude upon the Supreme Court’s exclusive authority to regulate the conduct of attorneys in the practice of law.”
Several high-profile cases have been brought under the Dragonetti Act recently. One such case was filed by Nancy Raynor, an attorney who was slammed with a $1 million sanction that was later reversed. She is suing the attorneys who pursued the sanctions against her.
Saylor’s decision April 26 was joined by Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd, Kevin Dougherty and Sallie Updyke Mundy. Baer and Todd filed concurring decisions, and Justice Christine Donohue filed a dissent. According to the opinion, Justice David N. Wecht joined the substance of Baer’s concurrence, but did not join the majority.