Pittsburgh’s major hospital system can make a copy of the former mayor’s computer in a case stemming from the ongoing dispute over the hospital’s obligation to pay payroll taxes, a federal judge has ruled.

Although the case in federal court has been stayed pending the outcome of a related state-court action, U.S. District Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti of the Western District of Pennsylvania granted the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) access to former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s computer in order to copy and preserve its contents in case the federal suit is reopened.

Since “the court has been informed that it is possible to create a mirror image of the computer,” Conti said, “UPMC may retain a third-party vendor of its choice, provided the vendor is acceptable to the city, to make a forensic mirror image of the computer that shall include all data on the computer, such as both active and deleted files and allocated and unallocated space, so that the entire contents and condition of the computer shall, from the date of copying forward, be preserved, should such evidence become relevant at a future time in this currently-stayed litigation.”

When Conti stayed the action in October, she stressed at the time that the city must preserve the evidence from Ravenstahl’s administration, which was preparing to leave office since Ravenstahl hadn’t sought another term.

“UPMC’s essential complaint is that the city defendants abused, and are abusing, the tax collection process by filing a lawsuit and engaging in a negative public relations campaign instead of following administrative procedures to collect allegedly past-due taxes,” Conti said in her October opinion staying the case in order to allow for the state-court system to rule.

“In fact,” she said, “UPMC explicitly invokes the protections of two Pennsylvania tax administration statutes, the LTA and the LTBRA, and asserts that the city defendants violated its constitutional rights by failing to comply with those laws.” Conti referred to the Local Tax Enabling Act and the Local Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights Act.

UPMC had tried to get the dispute into a federal forum twice—by filing this action and by asking the federal court to assert jurisdiction over the suit that the city had filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, according to Conti’s October opinion.

It has, so far, been unsuccessful on both fronts.

In its complaint, UPMC argued that, as a nonprofit corporation that acts as a parent organization to more than 60 organizations, including hospitals and health care facilities, it has no actual employees itself.

“While many of those separate corporations have employees, including more than 40,000 that work in Pittsburgh, as indicated above, UPMC is a legal entity that itself has no employees,” it said in its complaint.

But, whether or not UPMC can be taxed by the city is for the state-court system to sort out, Conti ruled.

“Out of an abundance of caution the court will abstain from adjudicating this matter until the state-court action, and any related proceedings, are concluded,” Conti said in her October opinion.

In her order issued Tuesday, allowing UPMC to copy Ravenstahl’s computer, Conti said that, if it goes ahead with the copying, one copy will go to UPMC’s lawyer and one will go to the city’s outside counsel. Both are to be delivered from the vendor in “sealed packaging, such as an envelope, which will readily reveal whether the package has been opened or otherwise tampered with,” Conti said.

The lawyers are ordered to keep the copies for the purposes of preservation only and they are not to be opened “nor the contents viewed, analyzed, studied, or examined until further order of the court,” Conti said.

UPMC is to cover the cost of the copying and delivery, the judge said.

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.

(Copies of the three-page order in UPMC v. City of Pittsburgh, PICS No. 14-0534, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)