Women and Justice: Jurisdiction


23 Pa. C.S.A. § 6101, Protection from Abuse Act (1990)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

This statute provides for Protection From Abuse Orders (“PFA Orders”). These PFA Orders act as a safeguard to victims and their children from a family/household member who is abusing them. The Protection from Abuse Act also provides for absolute confidentiality between a victim and a domestic violence counselor/advocate to encourage open and honest dialogue.

23 Pa. C.S.A. § 3701, Domestic Relations - Alimony and Support (1990)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage, Property and inheritance rights

The determination of the nature, amount, and duration of alimony is based on the court’s weighing of several factors. Among the factors considered by the court in its alimony determination are the following: (1) the relative earnings of the parties; (2) the ages and the physical, mental, and emotional conditions of the parties; (3) the sources of income of both parties, including, but not limited to, medical, retirement, insurance, or other benefits; (4) the expectancies and inheritances of the parties; (5) the duration of the marriage; (6) the contribution by one party to the education, training, or increased earning power of the other party; (7) the extent to which the earning power, expenses or financial obligations of a party will be affected by reason of serving as the custodian of a minor child; (8) the standard of living of the parties established during the marriage; (9) the relative education of the parties and the time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking alimony to find appropriate employment; (10) the relative assets and liabilities of the parties; (11) the property brought to the marriage by either party; (12) the contribution of a spouse as homemaker; (13) the relative needs of the parties; (14) the marital misconduct of either of the parties during the marriage; (15) the Federal, State, and local tax ramifications of the alimony award; (16) whether the party seeking alimony lacks sufficient property, including, but not limited to, property distributed under Chapter 35 to provide for the party’s reasonable needs; and (17) whether the party seeking alimony is incapable of self-support through appropriate employment.

23 Pa. C.S.A. § 5301, Domestic Relations - Child Custody (2010)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

In making custody and visitation decisions, Pennsylvania courts look to various factors in determining what is in the “best interest of the child.” The factors weighed by the court include: (1) the well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment; (2) the need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life; (3) which parent is more likely to foster a relationship between the noncustodial parent and the child; (4) each parent’s history of violent or abusive conduct; and (5) specific criminal convictions. The court will only award sole custody when it is in the best interest of the child. Shared custody will only be awarded if: (1) one or both parents apply for it; (2) the parents have agreed to shared custody; or (3) the court determines it is in the best interest of the child. It is within the court’s discretion to require the parents to attend counseling sessions. Further, the court may review and consider recommendations from the counselor in making the final custody decision.

23 Pa. C.S.A. § 3501, Domestic Relations - Property Division (1990)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage, Property and inheritance rights

Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state, which means the court will “equitably and fairly” divide, distribute, or assign the marital property between the parties, regardless of marital misconduct. “Marital property” generally means all property acquired by either spouse during the marriage. All property acquired by a spouse during their marriage is presumed to be marital property regardless of how title is held. In making its “equitable and fair” division of marital property, the court will weigh numerous factors, which include: the length of the marriage; any prior marriage of either party; the age, health, station, amount, and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities, and needs of each of the parties; the contribution by one party to the education, training, or increased earning power of the other party; the opportunity of each party for future acquisitions of capital assets and income; the sources of income of both parties, including, but not limited to, medical, retirement, insurance, or other benefits; the contribution or dissipation of each party in the acquisition, preservation, depreciation or appreciation of the marital property, including the contribution of a party as homemaker; the value of the property set apart to each party; the standard of living of the parties established during the marriage; the economic circumstances of each party at the time the division of property is to become effective; the federal, state and local tax ramifications associated with each asset to be divided, distributed or assigned; the expense of sale, transfer, or liquidation associated with a particular asset; and whether the party will be serving as the custodian of any dependent minor child(ren).

23 Pa. C.S.A. § 3301, Domestic Relations - Grounds for Divorce (1990)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage, Domestic and intimate partner violence

Under Pennsylvania law, a divorce can be either “fault-based” or “no-fault.” Grounds for a “fault-based” divorce include the following: abandonment (unmoving spouse has left the home) without a reasonable cause for a period of one or more years; adultery; cruel and barbarous treatment (unmoving spouse has treated movant in a way that puts his/her life or health at risk); bigamy (movant’s spouse married movant without first divorcing his/her spouse); imprisonment for two or more years; or movant’s spouse has acted in a way that made movant’s life unbearable or extremely difficult. Grounds for a “no-fault” divorce include the following: insanity or a serious mental disorder that resulted in confinement in a mental institution for at least 18 months immediately before the commencement of a divorce action; or where a complaint has been filed alleging that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” When the grounds for divorce is that the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” the court may find that there is a “reasonable prospect of reconciliation.” If the court makes such a finding, it will continue the matter for up to 120 days, but not less than 90 days, unless the parties agree to a longer period. During this continuation period, if either party requests it, the court will require up to a maximum of three counseling sessions.

Domestic Case Law

23 Pa. C.S.A. § 4301, Domestic Relations - Child Support (1985)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage, Property and inheritance rights

Pennsylvania uses a system referred to as the “Income Shares Model” for determining child support. This methodology focuses primarily on the net incomes of the parents and aims to grant the children the same proportion of the parental income that he or she would have received had the parents not divorced.

Commonwealth v. Fuentes Pennsylvania Superior Court (2010)

Sexual violence and rape

Defendant appealed a ruling that he was a sexually violent predator, suffering from an antisocial personality disorder. Defendant sexually assaulted a sixteen year-old girl and threatened to kill her if she reported the assault. He was subsequently arrested and entered a negotiated guilty plea. At the defendant’s Megan’s Law hearing and sentencing, a doctor, who was a member of the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, found that the defendant had an antisocial personality disorder and that he was likely to engage in sexually violent activity if not confined. In response to the defendant’s appeal, the Superior Court noted that the “determination of a defendant’s SVP status may only be made following an assessment by the Board and hearing before the trial court.” The court noted that the Board member’s opinion was evidence in of itself of the defendant’s sexually violent nature, and it upheld the assessment.

Allegheny County v. Wilcox Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (1983)

Gender discrimination

The defendant-appellant, the Court of Common Pleas, appealed a ruling by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”).  The PHRC had ruled that the defendant discriminated against female secretaries with respect to compensation and directed them to upgrade the secretaries’ wages and to pay them back pay.  The defendant argued that the PHRC could not require it to increase the wages and also that it was not considered an “employer” under 43 P.S. § 954(b).  The defendant argued that the definition of employers does not include a reference to courts and that any application of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act violates the doctrine of separation of powers by allowing the executive and legislative branches to interfere upon the judicial branch. The court found that the defendant failed to show how its authority was encumbered by the Human Relations Act.  The court also found that compelling the upgrade or equalization of pay was proper where, inversely, a court could compel a legislative body to spend money that is reasonably necessary for the body’s proper operation and administration.  Thus, the court affirmed the PHRC’s finding and ruled that the PHRC could require the defendant to increase the female secretaries’ wages and order back pay.

Yankoskie v. Lenker Pennsylvania Superior Court (1987)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

Plaintiff sought a protective order from her ex-boyfriend. The two had lived together but the plaintiff subsequently moved out to her own apartment with their three children. Plaintiff filed a petition for a protection order after her ex-boyfriend entered her apartment with her permission, became so drunk that he attempted to assault her, broke their infant son’s leg, and shoved his other son’s face against a door. The Court of Common Pleas denied plaintiff’s petition. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the plaintiff adequately demonstrated that her ex-boyfriend attempted to physically harm her and did cause her sons bodily injury. Further, even though the parties did not live together, the defendant had legal access to the plaintiff’s apartment; permissive entry is a form of legal access. The court thus found that it could issue a protective order in this situation and it reversed the court’s ruling.

Commonwealth v. Conklin Pennsylvania Supreme Court (2006)

Sexual violence and rape

Defendant was convicted of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, incest, indecent assault, indecent exposure and corruption of a minor. The defendant had sexually abused his daughter from the ages of six to nine. The nature of the defendant’s crimes required a determination if he was a sexually violent predator under Megan’s Law II (42 Pa. C.S.A. § 9792). At trial, a licensed clinical social worker and Board member assessed the defendant and concluded that he met the criteria of a sexually violent predator. The defendant’s evaluator was not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but the trial court found him qualified to testify as to the defendant’s status by his experience and training. The court found that the defendant was a sexually violent predator based upon the social worker’s conclusions. On appeal, the defendant argued that he could only be found to be a sexually violent predator by a psychiatrist or psychologist. The court noted that the criteria to assess in making the determination if a person is a sexually violent predator are: whether the offense involved multiple victims; whether the individual used excessive means to achieve the offense; the nature of the sexual contact; the relationship to the victim; the age of the victim; if the offense included any unusual cruelty; the victim’s mental capacity; and any history of prior offenses. The court found that a social worker could assess these factors; it was not necessary for a defendant to be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Commonwealth v. Meals Pennsylvania Supreme Court (2006)

Sexual violence and rape

Here, the defendant pleaded guilty to sexual offenses, namely that he sexually assaulted two daughters of his live-in girlfriend and threatened the younger daughter that he would harm her mother if she reported the assaults. A member of the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board assessed the defendant and found him to be a sexually violent predator under Megan’s Law II (42 Pa. C.S.A. § 9795). The court found that the defendant was a pedophile and was a sexually violent predator. The Superior Court subsequently reversed this finding, reasoning that the evidence did not support the defendant’s classification, and the state appealed. On appeal, the court found that the Superior Court improperly required the diagnosis of pedophilia to require more than proof of sexual assault on children. The court reversed this and found that proof of sexual assault on children sufficed to warrant a finding of pedophilia and the defendant was properly classified as a sexually violent predator.

Commonwealth v. Fiebiger Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (2002)

Sexual violence and rape

Marcia Jones was killed by Anthony James Fiebiger and his friend.  Fiebiger and his friend decided that they wanted to go to Grandview Park to molest and rape somebody.  They encountered Marcia and asked her if she wanted to go with them to the park to smoke marijuana.  Once in the park, Fiebiger choked Marcia until she fell to the ground; the two men removed her clothing while punching and kicking her.  Fiebiger attempted to have intercourse with Marcia but was unable to maintain an erection, so he abused her with a tree branch.  The court held that Fiebiger’s statement that he attempted to have intercourse with Marcia but was unable to was sufficient evidence for a jury to infer that he achieved some degree of penetration, which, however slight, is sufficient to fulfill that element of rape.  Thus, the evidence supported the finding of the aggravating factor that the murder was committed in perpetration of a felony.

Raya & Haig Hair Salon v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (2007)

Sexual harassment

Aida Armani worked as a hairstylist at Raya and Haig Hair Salon.  One of her customers, Kadyshes, began verbally and physically sexually harassing Aida by telling sexual jokes, commenting on her breasts, telling her she would be good in bed, and touching her rear and shoulders.  The Salon eventually hired Kadyshes as a business manager, and he became Aida’s direct supervisor.  Aida complained on at least six occasions but no action was taken to stop Kadyshes’s conduct.  Eventually Aida decided to open her own salon but before she could resign the Hair Salon learned of her plans and fired her.  The Commission found that the Salon unlawfully discriminated against her by subjecting her to a hostile work environment and constructively discharging her because of her sex.  The Salon challenged the decision on multiple grounds.  First, it argued that Aida was not discharged because of her sex but because she opened her own salon.  The court found that Aida established a prima facie claim for hostile work environment and that the evidence supported the conclusion that the Hair Salon violated the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act by allowing the existence of a hostile work environment.  In order to establish a prima facie claim for hostile work environment, a complainant must prove that she (1) suffered intentional discrimination because of her race or gender; (2) the harassment was severe or persuasive and regular; (3) the harassment detrimentally affected the complainant; (4) the harassment would detrimentally affect a reasonable person of the same protected class; and (5) the harasser was a supervisory employee or agent.  Constructive discharge occurs when an employer knowingly permits conditions of discrimination in employment so intolerable that a reasonable person subject to them would resign.  The fact that Aida stayed at her job did not preclude a finding of constructive discharge—she was the sole source of income for her family and she endured the treatment as long as she could take it.  Second, the Salon argued that it was improper to admit testimony about Aida’s work conditions that predated the time frame for which she alleged discrimination.  But the entire scope of a hostile work environment claim is permissible for assessing liability, including behavior alleged outside the statutory time period.  Third, the Salon challenged the determination that Aida attempted to mitigate her damages.  While a plaintiff has a duty to mitigate her damages, the burden of showing that she did not exercise reasonable diligence in seeking comparable employment lies with the employer.  Aida’s self-employment constituted mitigation because she took immediate steps to open her salon after she was fired.

Commonwealth v. Eckrote Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2010)

Sexual violence and rape, Domestic and intimate partner violence

C.B. was arriving home from work when Joseph Eckrote leapt from his hiding place under the porch and “charged” at her.  He demanded that C.B. get in the car and forced her to do so after she refused.  Despite her yelling and struggling to get free, Eckrote was able to drive off with C.B. to a wooded area where he raped her after repeatedly telling her he was going to kill himself.  Eckroke appealed his convictions for assault, kidnapping, and rape.  The court upheld the convictions after finding sufficient evidence to support all three.  As for assault, Eckrote hid himself and attacked C.B. when she arrived home; he forcibly stuffed her into the car which resulted in bruising.  He had in the past threatened to kill C.B. after hitting her in the face.  His conduct created in C.B. fear of imminent seriously bodily injury, which, in fact, occurred.  As for the rape, the evidence supported the finding that Eckrote used psychological and physical force to compel C.B. to engage in intercourse with him.  Lastly, the evidence established kidnapping because Eckrote possessed the requisite intent to facilitate a felony—rape—when he forced C.B. into the car and transported her to the wooded area.

Mescanti v. Mescanti Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2008)

Domestic and intimate partner violence, Sexual harassment

William and Elizabeth Mecanti were married with children.  William subjected Elizabeth to a pattern of harassment that lasted months.  The couple had been experiencing marital difficulties and Elizabeth had been sleeping on the couch.  She slept during the daytime because she worked the night shift.  William would come home from work and wake her up to argue and instigate fights.  He hacked into Elizabeth’s emails and looked through her pockets, cell phone logs, purses, and car.  He would follow her when she was out with friends.  He wrote her pages expressing his love, his fear of losing her, and his wish to stay together forever.  On one occasion William hid her house and car keys and locked her out of the house; when she was finally able to reenter the house, Elizabeth discovered that he had disconnected the telephone lines.  Elizabeth sought a protection from abuse (“PFA”) order after an incident when William wanted her to sleep with him in their bedroom, even though she had told him she wanted a divorce and they had been sleeping apart for three years.  When she refused to follow him to the bedroom, William told her “this is going to get ugly” and “this is just the tip of the iceberg.” Then he left the house.  Elizabeth went to sleep on the couch and woke up when William returned home and turned on the television.  She asked him to turn it off but he refused; after some argument he stormed out of the room after saying “you better not go to sleep.  You better not even close your eyes.”  Elizabeth heard a noise like the cocking of a gun (William kept guns in the house) so she called the police.  After this incident she sought the order of protection, which was granted.  She had not filed for divorce because she was afraid of what William might do.  On appeal, William argued that the PFA should not have issued because his threats were indirect and Elizabeth never testified to a past occasion when he threatened her as he did the night of the incident.  The court considered the pattern of harassment as a whole, including Elizabeth’s testimony that she had heard William cock guns in the past, and concluded that that his behavior established “abuse” under the statute.

Commonwealth v. Kerrigan Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2007)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

Daniel Kerrigan sexually abused A.R., the 7-year-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend, for 3 years.  The abuse was discovered when A.R. was diagnosed with genital warts when she was 10 years old.  The court held that the transmission of HPV and genital warts satisfies the serious bodily injury requirement of the crimes of Rape of Child (Serious Bodily Injury) and Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse with a Child (Serious Bodily Injury) because HPV is a permanent disease, can lead to cervical cancer, and may be transmitted to A.R.’s future sexual partners or children.

Karch v. Karch Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2005)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

Dinzel and Christine Karch were married with three children.  Christine sought and was granted a protection from abuse (“PFA”) order for an incident in March wherein Dinzel placed his hands around her neck and threatened to “snap” it.  Then in May, during an argument about getting divorced and child custody, Dinzel put his hands on his wife’s forehead, made a motion as if he was firing a gun, and said “there is your future.”  This action made Christine’s head sore as if she had a brush burn.  Dinzel argued that the court should not have credited Christine’s testimony about the injury inflicted upon her by him because she did not seek medical treatment for her injury.  But neither the PFA Act nor the body of case law interpreting it requires that there be medical evidence or that the wife seek medical treatment for an injury in order for her testimony to be found credible.  And in any event, verbal threats are sufficient to support the grant of a PFA; actual physical injury is not a prerequisite.  Dinzel next argued that the lack of a police report filed cast doubts on Christine’s credibility because it demonstrated that the police did not believe that she had been abused and that the lack of police compliance precluded the issue of a PFA as a matter of law.  The court held that it is also not required that a police report be filed in order to obtain a PFA and wished to make it “abundantly clear” that it will not infer that the failure of the police to act on a report of domestic violence means that the victim is not credible.

Hoy v. Angelone Superior Court of Pennsylvania (1997)

Sexual harassment

Louise Hoy worked at Shop-Rite as a meat-wrapper.  During her tenure there, Dominick Angelone repeatedly subjected her to sexual propositions, filthy language, off-color jokes, physical groping, and the posting of sexually suggestive pictures in the workplace.  Eventually Hoy took medical leave to receive psychiatric treatment; when she returned, she requested that the store manager move her to another department.  In order to recover under a hostile environment claim, the employee must prove that (1) she suffered intentional sex discrimination because of her sex; (2) the discrimination was pervasive and regular; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected the employee; (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person of the same sex in that position; and (5) the existence of respondeat superior liability.  Hoy established the first four elements but Shop-Rite argued that it could not be liable under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act for Angelone’s conduct because it did not know nor had reason to know of the existence of a sexually hostile environment, and it took remedial action.  A plaintiff may establish an employer’s knowledge by showing (i) that she complained to higher management or (ii) that the harassment was so pervasive that the employer will be charged with constructive knowledge.  The court upheld the jury’s finding that the store manager knew or should have been aware of the conduct before Hoy requested transfer out of the meat department and failed to take remedial action; indeed, the conduct was so pervasive that several of Hoy’s coworkers knew of the abuse.  Thus, Shop-Rite was liable for Angelone’s conduct because the manager failed to take remedial action despite this knowledge.