Dispute over gun license settlement sent back to lower court

By Sandra Lane | May 7, 2018

HARRISBURG – A class action lawsuit filed by a John Doe against the city of Philadelphia for alleged privacy violations of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995 was remanded by Judge P. Kevin Brobson back to the trial court for further consideration on April 4.

Also named as defendants are Mayor Michael A. Nutter, the Philadelphia Police Department, the department's Gun Permit Unit, Philadelphia License and Inspection Board of Review, and Philadelphia Office of Innovation and Technology.

Doe claimed there was a breach of confidentiality and invasion of privacy concerning the alleged improper release of Philadelphia residents’ names whose licenses to carry firearms were denied or revoked, The trial court denied Doe’s petition for contempt related to a court-approved settlement agreement. As a result, Doe appealed to a higher court for reversal of this decision.

The opinion, though, did not disclose why the court refused to enforce a subpoena related to the testimony of a member of the Gun Permit Unit.

"We, therefore, cannot discern from the record before us whether the trial court erred. Nonetheless, in the event that the trial court does not permit Appellant to engage in discovery and Appellant believes that discovery is warranted after Appellees file a verified answer to the Petition, nothing herein prevents Appellant from filing an application with the trial court requesting discovery," the Commonwealth Court wrote.

"We note that given our decision above to remand the matter to the trial court, this issue is now moot. On remand, however, if the trial court decides not to enforce a subpoena properly served by one of the parties, the trial court should set forth the reasons for its decision on the record or in an opinion.

Although an agreement had been reached by Doe with the city regarding the guidelines for management of License To Carry Firearms (LTCF) information on Oct. 19, 2014, almost two years later, Doe filed another petition alleging the city had not observed the terms of the agreement. 

Terms in dispute included a ban on releasing firearms information in person or electronically and a plan for better training the police and the board regarding confidentiality of the LTCF information. Another point in the agreement said that the city could not require an applicant for an LTCF to provide any references on the LTCF application. 

There also could be no denial of such application because of any failure or refusal to provide such references. There were a total of 14 requirements in the settlement.

Doe’s appeal argued that “the trial court abused its discretion, committed an error of law, or violated appellant’s constitutional rights in several areas, including denying appellant an opportunity to engage in discovery relative to the petition and denying appellant’s petition.”

Appellees argued that “pre-hearing discovery was not warranted because appellant did not serve discovery on appellees or file a motion requesting discovery.” They also said that courts located in jurisdictions like Philadelphia County, “have the flexibility to resolve those issues via an evidentiary hearing in lieu of allowing discovery.” 

In stating several rules of law, the Commonwealth Court declared that that appellant is not necessarily entitled to discovery in this matter. A Pennsylvania rule of civil procedure gives the trial court discretion to decide whether or not to permit Appellant to engage in discovery. Brobson said, “The trial court can exercise its discretion in this regard on remand.”

He also said that “a remand is necessary to afford appellant the process to which he is entitled under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. Accordingly, we vacate the trial court’s order and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.”

He directed the trial court to “issue a rule to show cause, specifically setting forth the process and procedure that it will follow to decide appellant’s petition, which may include permitting appellant to engage in discovery or holding a new evidentiary hearing after a verified answer has been filed.”

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