Justia Delaware Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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The Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families (the “Department”) appealed a September 18, 2014 Family Court order finding that the Department failed to establish probable cause at a Preliminary Protective Hearing (“PPH”) to retain an infant in the Department's custody. The Department filed an emergency ex parte petition on September 12, 2014, alleging that A.F., a newborn infant, was dependent, neglected, or abused by Mother, John Tower, and Unknown Father. An investigative worker for the Department, testified that the Department received a hotline report on August 1, 2014, claiming Mother had given birth into a toilet and had appeared to the hotline reporter to be high on drugs, with glassy eyes and slurred speech. The worker contacted Mother at St. Francis Hospital, where Mother and child had been taken following the birth. A.F. was born with methadone and benzodiazepines in his system and remained in the hospital at the time of the PPH for opiate dependence treatment. After hearing all the evidence, the Family Court concluded in its September 18 order that the Department did not establish probable cause to believe that A.F. was dependent, neglected, or abused in the care of Mother and Tower. According to the Family Court, the Department failed to establish that any of the drugs Mother was taking were taken without a doctor's knowledge of her condition or in violation of her physicians' instructions. The court also credited Tower's account of the circumstances of A.F.'s birth over the report from the hotline. The court viewed the remainder of the Department's evidence as insufficient to justify removal of the child from the custody of his parents. The Department argued on appeal that the Family Court failed to apply the correct probable cause standard when it dismissed the Department's petition. The Supreme Court found no merit to the Department's argument and affirmed the Family Court. View "Dept. of Serv. Children Fam. v. Fowler" on Justia Law

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Appellant, Murphy & Landon, P.A. (the “Firm”), disputed the decision of the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board which found that Chelsey Pernic, a paralegal at the Firm, had not been fired for just cause and was thus entitled to unemployment benefits. The Firm appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Board's conclusions were not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Further, the Firm contended that this error resulted largely because the Firm was unfairly restricted from presenting evidence of the broader scope of Pernic's poor job performance, including her lateness, disrespectful and uncooperative attitude, and shirking, in its hearing before the Appeals Referee. After review, the Supreme Court found that the Board's conclusions were not rationally grounded in the record, and thus, the Court found no need defer to them. "The uncontradicted record evidence shows that Pernic received a warning that her insubordination and poor performance could lead to her termination, but she continued to act disrespectfully and was therefore terminated. The Firm should not be penalized because it did not anticipate the precise form that Pernic's last act of misconduct would take. Nor should it be penalized for allowing Pernic time to improve her deficient performance. To do so would create a perverse incentive for an employer to discharge an employee at the first instance of poor performance in order to avoid the outcome that the Firm suffered here." Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Murphy & Landon, P.A. v. Pernic" on Justia Law

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Defendant Rondaiges Harper was convicted by jury of carjacking in the first degree, kidnapping in the first degree, and two counts of conspiracy in the second degree. On appeal he argued that his convictions should have been reversed because the crime of carjacking was completed by the time he joined the two teenagers who had stolen the victim's car and confined her in the trunk. After review, the Supreme Court concluded, based on the language and legislative history of Delaware's carjacking statute, that the crime of carjacking was not a continuing crime, but instead was completed at the point when all the elements of the crime have been satisfied. In this case, because the carjacking of the victim's vehicle was completed before Harper's involvement, and each of Harper's convictions depends upon carjacking as a predicate crime, the Court reversed his convictions and remanded for further proceedings. View "Harper v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant Bruce Worthy allegedly threatened his mother and brother at gunpoint. Worthy’s mother, Valerie Coleman, called 911 to report the threat, leading to Worthy’s arrest and a number of criminal charges. At trial, Coleman was one of the State’s main witnesses. The State subpoenaed Coleman to testify, but she failed to appear. The State tracked her down and put her in jail on a material witness capias. When the State brought her from jail to testify, Coleman was uncooperative and tried to end her testimony by "plead[ing] the Fifth." The trial judge removed the jury and spoke with the prosecutor, who in response to prompting from the trial judge, said that the State was giving Coleman "full immunity . . . [o]n everything," including perjury. The trial judge instructed Coleman that "[e]ven if you commit a crime by your testimony the State has basically said that you cannot be prosecuted." Coleman reluctantly continued her testimony after the judge’s instruction. A jury found Worthy guilty of aggravated menacing against Coleman, but acquitted him on all other counts. On appeal, Worthy argued that the prosecutor erred in granting Coleman immunity against prosecution for perjury, and that the legal error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. After review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded for a new trial. View "Worthy v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court found no merit to defendant-appellant Melvin Morse’s arguments on appeal and affirmed his conviction by jury on child abuse charges. Defendant physically abused his step-daughter, A.M. The abuse spanned two years and consisted of, inter alia, suffocating and "waterboarding" A.M. as punishment for what he deemed to be misbehavior. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the trial court abused its discretion by admitting evidence of other uncharged abusive acts against A.M. in violation of Delaware Rule of Evidence (“D.R.E.”) 403.6; and, (2) the trial court erred in allowing the jury to re-watch videotaped statements of A.M. and her younger sister, M.M., after the jury requested to view them during deliberations. In regard to defendant's second argument, the Supreme Court found that it was not an error to allow the jury to re-watch the statements, but used the occasion of this opinion to discuss a jury’s request to rehear a section 3507 statement during deliberations. A request to rehear such a statement is an exception to the general rule, and applies when the jury requests to rehear a section 3507 statement of its own accord. "This exception was created with the understanding that the request would be spontaneous in nature, not made at the encouragement of counsel. As the State admitted at oral argument before this Court, this action is not 'best practice,' and it should not be repeated in the future. Attorneys should not direct the jury to make requests to the trial judge to review testimonial evidence that is otherwise not permitted during deliberations." View "Morse v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Heather Rybicki was convicted by a jury of driving under the influence of alcohol (“DUI”). She was sentenced to two years of Level V incarceration, suspended after three months for one year and six months of Level IV home confinement, suspended after six months for one year of Level III probation. On appeal, Rybicki argued: (1) there was no probable cause to issue the search warrant to obtain a blood sample used to determine her BAC; (2) there was no probable cause for her warrantless arrest; (3) absent the BAC evidence, there was insufficient evidence for conviction; (4) the State did not lay a sufficient foundation for the BAC evidence; and (5) two jury instructions given by the trial court were improper comments on the evidence. Rejecting all of appellant's contentions on appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Rybicki v. State" on Justia Law

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Defendants-appellants Hill International, Inc., David Richter, Camille Andrews, Brian Clymer, Alan Fellheimer, Irvin Richter, Steven Kramer and Gary Mazzucco sought review of Court of Chancery orders dated June 5, 2015 and June 16, 2015. In its June 5, 2015 Order, the Court of Chancery enjoined Hill from conducting any business at its June 9, 2015 Annual Meeting, other than convening the meeting for the sole purpose of adjourning it for a minimum of 21 days, in order to permit plaintiff-appellee Opportunity Partners L.P. to present certain items of business and director nominations at Hill’s 2015 Annual Meeting. On June 16, 2015, the Court of Chancery entered the Order dated June 5, 2015 as a partial final judgment pursuant to Court of Chancery Rule 54(b). This expedited appeal presented for the Supreme Court's resolution a dispute over the proper interpretation of certain provisions of Articles II and III of Hill’s Bylaws as Amended and Restated on November 12, 2007. The sections of the Bylaws at issue, specifically language in Sections 2.2 and 3.3, concerned the operative date for determining the time within which stockholders must give notice of any shareholder proposals or director nominees to be considered at Hill’s upcoming annual meeting. After review of the bylaws and the Court of Chancery's orders, the Supreme Court found reversible error and affirmed. View "Hill International, Inc., et al. v. Opportunity Partners, L.P." on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Mark Zambrana was convicted by the Superior Court following a bench trial on two counts of Sexual Solicitation of a Child. On appeal, he argued that his admitted misconduct of soliciting his 15 year old neighbor, S.Z., to remove her shirt and bra while he surreptitiously watched her did not qualify as sexual solicitation. He argues that 11 Del. C. 1112A required a defendant to create a physical “depiction” of the victim’s nudity in order to be convicted, and that he created no such “depiction” here. The Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed the conviction: "[a]lthough the term 'depiction' has multiple definitions, we find that for the purposes of section 1112A, 'depiction' encompasses not only tangible manifestations such as photographs and videos, but also includes live conduct. This definition best accords with the statute as a whole and the legislative purpose in enacting it. Applying this definition to the facts before us, we conclude that Zambrana’s actions constituted Sexual Solicitation of a Child." View "Zambrana v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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This case arose when Henry and Mary Lou Black and Blackball Properties, LLC (collectively, the “Blacks”), challenged the Department of Land Use's decision to grant a change of use certificate to neighboring property owners, Gary Staffieri and Adria Charles-Staffieri, to the New Castle County Board of License, Inspection and Review. The Staffieris had rented out the property for use as office space for approximately ten years before deciding to open an automobile detailing shop on the premises, which required them to obtain a change of use certificate from the Department. When the Staffieris first received their certificate from the Department, the Blacks successfully appealed and the Board reversed the Department's decision. But the Staffieris reapplied, the Department once again issued their certificate, and this time, the Board affirmed the Department's decision. The Blacks were unable to appeal the Board's decision to a reviewing court because the General Assembly chose not to provide that right to parties aggrieved by a Board decision. The Blacks therefore sought review by writ of certiorari filed at the Superior Court. The Superior Court granted the writ and affirmed the Board. The Supreme Court, after its review, found no reversible error and affirmed the Superior Court. View "Black v. New Castle Cty. Bd. of License, Inspection & Review" on Justia Law

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit certified a question of Delaware law arising out of an appeal from a decision issued by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The question pertained to contract interpretation. Plaintiff-appellant NAF Holdings secured a contractual commitment of its contracting counterparty, defendant Li & Fung (Trading) Limited, to render a benefit to a third party. The counterparty breached that commitment. Could "the promisee-plaintiff bring a direct suit against the promisor for damages suffered by the plaintiff resulting from the promisor's breach, notwithstanding that (i) the third-party beneficiary of the contract is a corporation in which the plaintiff-promisee owns stock; and (ii) the plaintiff-promisee's loss derives indirectly from the loss suffered by the third-party beneficiary corporation; or must the court grant the motion of the promisor-defendant to dismiss the suit on the theory that the plaintiff may enforce the contract only through a derivative action brought in the name of the third-party beneficiary corporation?" The Delaware Supreme Court answered that under Delaware law, a party to a commercial contract who sues to enforce its contractual rights can bring a direct contract action under Delaware law. "Although the relationship of that party to the third-party beneficiary might well have relevance in determining whether the contract claim is viable as a matter of contract law, nothing in Delaware law requires the promisee-plaintiff's contract claim to be prosecuted as a derivative action. " View "NAF Holdings, LLC v. LI & Fung (Trading) Limited" on Justia Law