Pennsylvania

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By: Rob Harris

Pennsylvania state legislator Jim Christiana, having sponsored legislation that would have benefited Pittsburgh-based health insurer Highmark, found himself playing as Highmark’s guest in the pro-am for the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Fox Chapel Golf Club.

Confronting the to-be-expected suggestions of quid pro quo favoritism, Christiana issued the following statement:

“Let me be explicitly clear, it is way off-base to say that my participation in this charity event had anything to do with my bill. Whether Highmark supported it or opposed it was irrelevant to me from the start. I thought it was the right thing to do at the right time.”

Highmark’s spokesman responded in kind, asserting that any suggestion of favoritism “would be ridiculous.” “We routinely invite local elected officials and clients to community events.”

By: Rob Harris

Cases recently filed in Pennsylvania and Alaska serve as cautionary tales that golf outings carry liability risks to clubs, organizers and charities.

In Pennsylvania, a wrongful death suit has been filed by the estate of a woman killed by a driver who became intoxicated at an annual charity golf tournament held–ready for this?– in honor of a woman killed by drunk driver in 1997. The defendants to the lawsuit include Five Ponds Golf Club (the course), Bump and Run Charity Golf (the company that ran the event) and The D’Angelo Foundation (the event sponsor).

Similarly, the families of two teenage girls killed by a driver charged with driving under the influence, have sued him and also his employer Puget Sound Pipe and Supply Co. This Alaska lawsuit alleges that, at a company sponsored golf event, the company continued to serve alcohol to the driver after he was clearly intoxicated.

To state the obvious, anyone involved in organizing or sponsoring a golf event needs to make sure there is adequate insurance in place. Insurance companies can push back, however, if the insured intentionally or recklessly ignores obvious risks.

 

By: Rob Harris

Here’s a link to a story about a Pittsburgh sportscaster who is suing a number of large chemical companies, claiming that their pesticides caused the death of his father, a long time golf course superintendent, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

I am aware of no such other cases that have been brought, and I wonder if others have knowledge?

Establishing causation between chemical exposure and cancer is a daunting task, so I anticipate that plaintiff will face an uphill challenge in this litigation.

 

By: Rob Harris

Pennsylvania residents, Susan and Jeffrey Rocke, were visiting the Pebble Beach resort, when Ms. Rocke tripped and hurt her head.  The Rockes sued Pebble (sorry), and did so in their home state of Pennsylvania.

To force Pebble Beach Company–a California corporation–to defend the litigation in Pennsylvania, Mr. and Mrs. Rocke needed to establish that Pebble Beach maintained “continuous and systematic” contacts with Pennsylvania.

This hurdle proved daunting for the plaintiffs. The court noted that the undisputed evidence revealed the following:

Pebble Beach is not licensed or incorporated to do business in Pennsylvania.  Pebble Beach has never filed tax returns or been required to file tax returns in Pennsylvania.  Pebble Beach does not file administrative reports with any an agency or department within Pennsylvania. Pebble Beach does not have physical land or property in Pennsylvania.  Pebble Beach does not maintain an agent within Pennsylvania. Additionally, Pebble Beach has never had a sales manager who was located in Pennsylvania. Ms. McAuliffe, who has been Pebble Beach’s Sales Manager of the Northeast (U.S.) for the past twenty years, has never been to Pennsylvania for business trips, nor have any employees who work for her. In addition, neither Ms. McAuliffe nor her employees have attended trade shows in Pennsylvania.

Against this evidence, plaintiffs were left with arguments the court found fatally flimsy:

  • Pebble Beach had a licensing contract with a manufacturer of golf simulators that happened to be based in Pennsylvania.
  • Pebble Beach did business with Pennsylvania travel agents and other vendors representing, in total, less than 0.5% of Pebble Beach’s accounts payable.
  • Pebble Beach branded products “are offered for purchase in Pennsylvania at Nordstrom, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Costco, and PGA Tour shops; Pebble Beach books are sold at Barnes & Noble in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pebble Beach video games “are sold worldwide by any retailer that sells video games, including those in Pennsylvania”; and Pebble Beach golf simulators, such as the simulators …, “can be easily found by simply ‘surfing the internet.’”
  • Pebble Beach maintained an interactive website that could be accessed by Pennsylvania residents.
  • Pebble Beach personnel attended the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

The court found that these circumstances, considered individually or cumulatively, provided an insufficient basis to force Pebble Beach Company to defend the lawsuit in Pennsylvania. Thus, absent a successful appeal, Mr. and Ms. Rocke will be required to pursue the litigation in California.

By: Rob Harris

Quite a few professional golfers decided to forego the completion of their formal high school education, preferring to spend their days in pursuit of fame and fortune. Neither Kevin Na, Sean O’Hair, Justin Rose and my home town golf celebrity Bobby Mitchell (I mean, how many golfers beat Jack Nicklaus in sudden death at the Tournament of Champions) made it all the way to their senior prom.

If Meadow Lands golf course in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania has its way, hundreds of students–elementary school students, no less–will have their education curtailed due to golf.

Meadow Lands happens to be the place that the Phoenixville Area School District identified as the ideal location for its new early learning center and elementary school. The new facilities are needed, according to the District, because the existing schools cannot accommodate the growth of the young student population. Without the new school, the student population will exceed capacity by at least 143 as of the 2016-17 school year.

Meadow Lands is not necessarily averse to turning over the keys to the course in furtherance of education. However, it wants $8 million to do so, while the school district’s offer is $5 million. Seeking help from a third party of the black-robed variety, the school district has commenced an eminent domain proceeding. The next hearing date is scheduled for May 16–prime time for golf and end-of-school-year festivities. Stories about the dispute can be found here and here and here.

By: Rob Harris

For golf fans, perhaps the most interesting thing about the Texas Court of Appeals recent opinion in Professional Association of Golf Officials v. Phillips Campbell & Phillips, L.L.P.A. is that there is an organization of Professional Association of Golf Officials. Indeed, there is.

As the organization describes itself in the lawsuit which it brought against its prior attorneys, PAGO “was formed as a labor union to represent the interests of tournament officials employed by PGA Tour, Inc. on any one of its three professional golf tours, PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour, and Champions Tour.”

For twenty years, the defendant law firm and its predecessor represented PAGO. Alleging that its attorneys had failed to keep up with the industry, as a result of which PAGO claimed to have  ”lost time and again at the bargaining table and in other matters with PGA Tour, Inc.,” PAGO terminated the Phillips law firm.

PAGO claimed that the firm did not go quietly, but rather “set out on a warpath.” demanding $100,000 in fees and refusing to turn over to PAGO its books and records.

PAGO filed suit, opting to do so in Texas, where its new attorney was located, even though the Phillips firm was located in Pennsylvania, which also was the legal residence of PAGO.

The choice of a Texas litigation venue led to a collateral skirmish as to whether the suit could appropriately be brought in Texas by PAGO. Almost two years after the lawsuit was filed, the Texas Court of Appeals has said “no”, holding that the Texas court does not have personal jurisdiction over the Phillips law firm.

Next steps for PAGO? It can try to convince the Texas Supreme Court to overturn the Court of Appeals–not likely. PAGO can refile its lawsuit in Pennsylvania, where there clearly would be jurisdiction, and a court can (finally) address the merits of PAGO’s claims. Or, with the passage of time and the presumed cooling of emotions, PAGO can attempt to negotiate a resolution with the law firm and move on.

 

By: Rob Harris

This week’s installment of “Can We Turn Our Golf Course Into Housing” comes from Newberry Township, Pennsylvania. The owner of Valley Green Golf Course seeks zoning approval which would permit conversion of the 100 acre golf course into a residential development consisting of 336 single-family homes, town houses, and duplexes.

The owner contends the current development restriction on the property constitutes unlawful “spot zoning,” since other open areas within the township are not subject to the same prohibition.

Standing in the owner’s way, according to reports, is the historical record. Allegedly, the owner agreed to the zoning restriction seven years ago, in exchange for receiving permission to develop adjacent neighborhoods with higher density than would otherwise have been approved. Thus, the developer is being accused of obtaining the benefit of this bargain, and now trying to undo the green space concession it made.

 

By: Rob Harris

Had alleged golf professional Vincent James Grosso not missed the judicial equivalent of a tee time, he might have had a tough time convincing a Pennsylvania court why he and his golf partner, Carl Hinrichs, were unjustly deprived of their free golf trip to Scotland.

According to the opinion released this week by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Grosso and Hinrichs claim to have won a charity tournament sponsored by the Catholic Leadership Conference at Blue Bell Country Club in 2001. However, the first prize–the aforementioned trip to Scotland–was taken away when word got out that Grosso was a PGA Professional, thus making him and Hinrichs ineligible for this erstwhile amateur event.

Believing themselves to be aggrieved, the Grosso-Hinrichs twosome brought suit, an action that defendants the trial court appears to have viewed with disfavor, based on its characterization of the lawsuit: “this is an action by a PGA professional and a colleague who entered the golf tournament to prey on amateurs and a charity.”

Whether by inadvertence or design, the plaintiffs avoided confronting the court directly, by managing to pursue the case with sufficient casualness that the court dismissed it on procedural grounds. The Superior Court, on appeal, affirmed the dismissal.

 

By: Rob Harris

During the first three-and-a-half years of my undergraduate education at Quaker-founded, left-leaning Haverford College, I would regularly subject my father (a manufacturer of men’s windbreakers) to expositions  about the oppression of the working class. Finally, during winter break of my senior year, Dad had enough. He took me to the basement, rummaged through an old box and retrieved a dusty copy of his college thesis, the title of which was something like “Toward a Planned Economy.” “Yes,” my father said, “I was a socialist. I was a socialist until I had to meet my first payroll. And then I became a capitalist real fast.”  You win, Dad. Game. Set. Match.

I thought of my father today when I read this morning that members of the carpenters’ and stagehands’ unions have set up pickets at Merion Golf Club and the adjoining Haverford campus. In anticipation of this year’s U.S. Open at Merion, the USGA has engaged a company called Classic Tents to erect spectator amenities, including tents and a pedestrial bridge at Haverford. Classic Tents apparently is utilizing non-union labor thereby creating the furor.

The USGA has announced a desire “to explore opportunities for [union] members to complement the work being done at Merion by companies who have long-term agreements with the USGA.” Meanwhile, the unions have “suggested” that the issue ”will escalate if they don’t fix it.” Watch for a solution in short order.

While on the conjoined subjects of Merion and Haverford, this is a great opportunity to plug my former Haverford College golf teammate David Barrett and his prize winning book “Miracle at Merion” about Ben Hogan’s victory in the 1950 U.S. Open. As I recall, there’s nothing in David’s book about labor unrest. Just a fascinating account of a great U.S. Open at Merion.

By: Rob Harris

While golfers viewing Pinecrest Lake Golf and Country Club saw greens and green fairways, the tax assessor for Monroe County, Pennsylvania saw green dollar signs. Doing what tax assessors are trained to do, he determined the value of the property as a golf course and sent the bill to the owner.

The owner–who by various transactions was serving not only as the title holder to the golf course but also was functioning as the homeowners’ association for the 325 homes built in the community–appealed the assessment.

The argument advanced by the owner was that the assessor should not be valuing the golf course as a stand alone property, but rather as an amenity for the 325 home community. Under this argument, the tax liability would not fall on the owner based on the stand alone value of the golf course. Rather, each home owner should be assessed based on the incremental increase in his or her property value by virtue of this community amenity. The nature of valuation being what it is, there likely would be no attributable incremental value, and the logistics of attempting to capture whatever minimal value might exist would be burdensome and certain to annoy the good citizens of Monroe County who might be inclined to express their displeasure come election time.

It was no surprise that the course owner was unable to convince the dollar starved Monroe County Board of Assessment Appeals of the rectitude of its position.  The owner’s next destination was the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County, which reversed the Board’s decision, leaving the Board with the need to pursue an appeal if it hoped to capture the wanted tax dollars.

This week the appellate court rendered its decision, awarding the golf course owner victory. The key determining factor was the court’s conclusion that the course was a common amenity for the community home owners. The court reached this decision even though “memberships may be purchased by outside individuals who do not own units within the planned community, [even though] employees are offered limited golf privileges as part of their compensation, and [even though] unit owner members who wish to play pay extra fees over and above their base fees and are allowed to bring guests.”

Relying on precedential law from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the appellate court rejected the argument that purity was required. As the court held, “the golf course parcels … are “common facilities” exempt from separate taxation …, regardless of whether individuals other than Community units owners had golf course memberships or privileges.”

For now, the tax man stands defeated.

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