Villani v. Seibert, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 939, Chief Justice Saylor decided April 26, 2017

May 2nd, 2017 by Rieders Travis in Constitutional Law

In this interlocutory direct appeal by permission, we consider whether a legislative enactment recognizing a cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings infringes upon this Court’s constitutionally prescribed power to regulate the practice of law, insofar as such wrongful-use actions may be advanced against attorneys.  Notably, Appellants had not specifically referenced the Dragonetti Act in their complaint.  As the proceedings have developed, however, it has become clear that Appellants are relying upon the enactment.  Whether charged with a violation of [Rule] 3.1 or a violation of the Dragonetti Act, an attorney would defend with the same evidence upon which the attorney his or her good faith belief that there was a basis in law and fact to bring or defend the underlying civil proceeding.  In either case, the finder of fact would be charged with determining whether the lawyer’s belief was objectively reasonable, i.e., whether the lawyer had acted in good faith by relying upon creditable facts and a non-frivolous legal argument for purposes of probable cause to pursue a claim.  In conclusion, in our considered judgment, Appellee has failed to establish that the Dragonetti Act clearly and palpably violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, or that this Court should per se immunize attorneys, as attorneys, from the application of the substantive tort principles promulgated by the political branch in the Dragonetti Act. In terms of the arguments pertaining to the legislative decision to adjust the liability standard to subsume gross negligence, this Court’s rules are not intended as a safe harbor for attorneys who cause harm to others via such elevated heedlessness.  Similarly, while the Rules of Professional Conduct may describe lawyers’ ethical obligations in a more objective fashion than is reflected in the Dragonetti’s Act’s liability threshold, the interests of justice do not favor immunizing conduct undertaken with a subjectively wrongful state of mind.  Indeed, the common law liability standard of malice certainly has subjective attributes.  The order of the common pleas court is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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