Reed Smith Client Alerts

On September 14, 2020, Judge William S. Stickman IV of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that a number of the measures implemented by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to address the impact of COVID-19 are unconstitutional. In a 66-page opinion in County of Butler, et al. v. Thomas W. Wolf, et al.,1 Judge Stickman found that Pennsylvania’s orders: (1) limiting the size of gatherings violated the First Amendment’s right of assembly; (2) requiring Pennsylvanians to stay-at-home violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) closing “non-life-sustaining” businesses violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs in the case filed their complaint on May 7, 2020, seeking a declaratory judgment that several of the orders issued by the defendants – Pennsylvania Governor Thomas W. Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine – designed to combat COVID-19 violated certain of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. Among other things, the plaintiffs challenged a March 19, 2020, executive order which called for the immediate closure of all businesses in the Commonwealth that were not deemed “life sustaining” as well as a series of “stay-at-home” orders for residents in a number of Pennsylvania counties. Although the Commonwealth subsequently lifted many of those restrictions, it also issued “targeted mitigation” orders in July that imposed limitations on businesses in the food services industry, prohibited indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 people, and prohibited outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people. The opinion indicates that the court addressed the legal effect of the since-suspended business closure and related stay-at-home provisions of the Commonwealth’s orders because they could be reinstated at any time.

The decision in County of Butler comes just two weeks after Judge R. Barclay Surrick of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed substantive due process claims challenging some of the same orders in Paradise Concepts Inc., et al. v. Thomas W. Wolf, et al.2 The governor has already indicated that Pennsylvania will seek a stay of Judge Stickman’s ruling in County of Butler and will file an appeal.