At the request of both sides, Lebanon County’s lawsuit against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, which seeks the release of almost $13 million of COVID-19 pandemic relief money, has been temporarily halted, and a court order cancelling an emergency hearing hints that the parties may be trying to settle their dispute.
The county filed a “mandamus” lawsuit against Wolf in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court on July 22, after Wolf refused to release the county’s share of federal CARES Act money intended to compensate county residents, businesses, and nonprofits for the widespread economic damage caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Lebanon was the only county that didn’t get its share of the $625 million allocated to the Commonwealth. Wolf withheld the funds after the county’s majority Republican county commissioners passed a resolution to move the county to the “yellow” phase of reopening, defying Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions on individuals and business operations during the viral pandemic.
When it filed its lawsuit on July 22, the county asked the court for a quick emergency hearing, arguing that each passing day without the money caused irreparable harm to those it was intended to help. As it stands now, CARES Act money is mandated to be spent by the end of the year, a feat that gets more difficult as weeks pass.
The court obliged by scheduling an emergency video hearing on Monday, August 10, and the stage was set for a preliminary confrontation in court.
That changed last Friday, August 7, when, according to online court records, the county and the governor jointly filed a motion to postpone the August 10 emergency hearing. LebTown has been unable to obtain a copy of what was filed, since Commonwealth Court documents aren’t available online and the court’s offices are closed due to the pandemic.
The Commonwealth Court approved the postponement request later that day, without setting a new emergency hearing date.
Instead, it issued a court order saying “[The emergency hearing] scheduled for Monday, August 10, 2020 at 2:00 p.m. . . . is CANCELLED. The parties shall file a status report no later than August 17, 2020, if the action has not been discontinued by that date.” (Italics added by LebTown)
LebTown emailed county attorney David Warner and asked whether the court’s reference to a possible discontinuance of the lawsuit was an indication that the county and the governor were negotiating a settlement. Warner had not replied by publication time.
However, attorney Heather Eggert, a partner at Lebanon’s Henry & Beaver law firm, said judges sometimes use phrases like “if the action has not been discontinued” when the parties to a lawsuit say they are negotiating an out-of-court settlement.
“Based on my experience,” Eggert said in an email, “that language tends to signify that the parties have been engaged in settlement negotiations and that a settlement is most likely forthcoming.”
The court’s reference to August 17, Eggert added, “is a good sign that the parties may reach an agreement by the end of this week.”
Eggert added that settlement negotiations, if any are underway, can fall through, and that nothing is truly settled until papers are signed and a lawsuit is formally discontinued.
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. Ames Home Services and Henry & Beaver are current advertisers on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here. Additionally, Chris Coyle is a former colleague of Henry & Beaver attorney Heather Eggert and David Warner has a financial interest in the ownership of LebTown’s parent company Lebanon Publishing Company. Warner has no involvement in editorial operations, including this article.