Pennsylvania Record

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Commonwealth Court lifts seal on Milton Hershey School litigation enough to issue opinion on jurisdiction question

State Court

By Karen Kidd | Dec 4, 2019

Schools 1280

HARRISBURG – The seal on a case in Milton Hershey School's litigation with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission was lifted just enough earlier this month for the public to see an opinion in the case.

In that 16-page opinion issued Nov. 4, a Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania three-judge panel vacated a commission motions examiner's interlocutory order issued in April that denied the school's motion to dismiss based on jurisdiction issues.

The court also remanded the case for further proceedings, "which shall include an evidentiary hearing on this jurisdictional question," the opinion said. 

Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer wrote the opinion in which Judge Ellen Ceisler and Senior Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter concurred.

Milton Hershey School provides lower income families in Hershey access to cost-free, private and co-residential schooling.

The court had been asked to consider whether the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission had been wrong when it denied the school's motion to dismiss a complaint against it over jurisdictional issues.

At issue is whether Milton Hershey School qualifies as a public accommodation.

About a year ago, Milton Hershey School filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing the Human Relations Commission lacked jurisdiction because the school is not a public accommodation under commonwealth law.

"In its motion to dismiss, [Milton Hershey School] requested an evidentiary hearing and set forth factual averments it believed supported its arguments that because the school is distinctly private in nature, is neither open to nor accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public, and/or is not supervised by the commonwealth, it is not a public accommodation," the opinion said.

The Human Relations Commission countered that Milton Hershey School is "clearly a public accommodation" as the school is included on a state list of public accommodations, the opinion said.  

No evidentiary hearing was held on the motion to dismiss, which the motion's examiner denied on April 16.

"In rejecting [Milton Hersey School]'s argument that the school is not open to the 'general public,' [the] motions examiner explained that 'no school is open to the 'general public' but schools are open to students of certain ages who live in certain areas," the opinion said. "Motions examiner held that a school's selectivity in its admission process, one of the basis for (Milton Hershey School)'s argument, does not deter from the fundamental fact that it draws students from the general public."

The Commonwealth Court also considered an application for partial and prospective reconsideration of a request to seal the record in the case.

"Given the multiple privacy interests involved, we will maintain the case and record under seal, but this opinion is designated a reported opinion so as to allow public review of the issue before the court," the opinion said, adding that it agreed with the seal only in part.

"The underlying facts related to the complaint and the actions taken after its filing will not be referenced in this opinion beyond stating that the complaint involved a student's readmission to the school following a leave of absence," the opinion said.

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