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In 2005, the Commonwealth Court saw reduced numbers of appeals stemming from disputes over workers’ and unemployment comp and driver’s license suspensions, and the drop-off is believed to stem, at least in part, from recent legal changes in those areas. The combined number of appeals from decisions by the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board constituted roughly 27 percent of the Commonwealth Court’s filings in 2005, while appeals related to motor vehicle license suspensions amounted to about 3.5 percent of that total number. So the significant declines in filings in those sizable litigation sectors helped push the Commonwealth Court’s total number of 2005 actions down for at least the third year in a row, leading to an increasingly less-congested docket and quicker disposition times. The appeals by geographic region data released by the court, however, indicate that 2004′s sharp drop in Commonwealth Court appeals from the Philadelphia metropolitan area was unique to that year, as the number of appeals from the state’s five southeasternmost counties have again reached their pre-2004 levels. G. Ronald Darlington, the court’s executive administrator, noted that 2005 saw yet another decline in the number of driver’s license suspension-related appeals. He attributed that shift to several decisions from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2003 and 2004 that settled disputes over changes to the state motor vehicles code. For example, Commonwealth v. Mockaitis in 2003 and Commonwealth v. Siekierda in 2004 cleared the Commonwealth Court’s docket of many ignition-interlock disputes and appeals involving a license suspension because of an out-of-state drunken driving conviction, respectively. Those state court decisions — in addition to more recent ones on related issues — have resulted in fewer appeals from trial level holdings, Darlington believes. “Those questions have been cleared up,” he said. In 2003, there were 218 appeals from common pleas decisions concerning license suspensions; in 2004, there were 163; and in 2005, 136. As far as the decline in the workers’ comp numbers, Darlington said it’s possible the court is finally witnessing the impact of the “compromise and release” changes to workers’ comp laws that were passed by the General Assembly in the late 1990s. President Judge James Gardner Colins said that statutory changes giving rise to more liberal standards for commutations of benefits could have also played a role. Under the compromise and release changes, according to Darlington and Colins, claimants with serious, permanent disabilities are able to negotiate for immediate lump-sum payments, ending their employers’ ongoing liability while enabling them to begin spending on long-term care. “That is relatively new in this system,” Darlington said. Another possible reason for the workers’ comp numbers decline is the mediation process the WCAB first instituted a couple years back, Darlington added. “We may be just seeing the fruits of it now,” he said. Colins said the growth of workers’ comp-related mediation in the Commonwealth Court’s own mediation program may have also contributed to the drop-off. Of the 220 cases mediated by the court’s program in 2005, Colins said, 56 of the 95 successfully arbitrated cases involved workers’ comp disputes. (Of the total cases mediated, 138 were workers’ comp related.) There were 629 appeals from the WCAB in 2003; 679 in 2004; and 582 this past year. The unemployment comp area saw a similar overall drop in recent years, with 577 appeals from the UCBR in 2003; 623 in 2004; and 511 in 2005. Darlington said he couldn’t think of any recent unemployment comp law changes that could explain the decline in that sector. But some employment law practitioners guessed that the change could be related to the Commonwealth Court’s early February 2005 holding in Harkness v. UCBR. In Harkness, the court ruled that nonlawyers may not represent employers in unemployment comp hearings. Though the ruling was effectively reversed via statute by the Legislature later in the year, for a period of several months, the ruling was in effect. Sidney Steinberg, a partner at Post & Schell in Philadelphia who pens an employment law column for The Legal Intelligencer, said that if Harkness led to more unemployment comp claims’ being uncontested by the employers, that could explain the drop. Employment lawyer Kurt Miller of Thorp Reed & Armstrong in Pittsburgh said Harkness could have had something to do with the decline, but said it also might just be “happenstance.” “Appeals are expensive, and it may be that the cost of appealing just doesn’t justify the potential benefits,” Miller said. Barry Ciccocioppo, a Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry spokesman, said there’s no indication of a link between Harkness and the decline in UCBR appeals. Ciccocioppo did call attention to the fact that in the past year, the state’s overall unemployment numbers have seen a 4 percent decline, meaning that there could be that many fewer unemployment comp claimants. “ Harkness is a factor,” Colins acknowledged. “But I would say [the main one] is the job market.” Whatever the causes behind the drop-offs, the Commonwealth Court’s case inventory is currently at a lower point than it has been in at least the past 18 years, Darlington notes. At the end of 2005, there were 1,064 appeals pending, compared with 2,790 in 1997 and 3,439 in 1988. The number of total actions filed has continued to go down, with 4,635 in 2003, 4,624 in 2004 and 4,056 in 2005. That has led to a similar decline in the number of majority opinions that have needed to be written. As far as expediency of dispositions, the average time elapsed between case assignment and opinion filing in 2005 was 57 days, compared to 68 days in 2004. “This is the absolute lowest in history,” Colins said of both the court’s present inventory and current average speed of disposition. But Darlington said that the court continues to be “inundated” with original jurisdiction suits lodged by new inmates in state penal facilities, and that category of litigation accounts for just under 70 percent of the cases over which the court exercises original jurisdiction. And members of the court have continued to be wrapped up in the years-long litigations related to the liquidation of major insurance companies, such as the Reliance Insurance Co.-related matters being overseen by Colins. “A lot of people don’t thoroughly appreciate the fact that the Commonwealth Court is unique, probably unique in the nation,” Darlington said. “We are both a trial court and an appellate court.” The Superior Court also releases yearly statistics. The office of Judge Joseph A. Del Sole — who recently stepped down as president judge of that court — said the court’s 2005 data will be published in about a month.

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