September 16, 2020

COVID-19: Federal District Court Overturns Pennsylvania's Business Closures, Stay-at-Home Orders and Limits on Personal Gatherings as Unconstitutional

On September 14, 2020, a Judge appointed by President Donald Trump to the United States Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled unconstitutional several measures taken by Pennsylvania Governor and the Pennsylvania Department of Health to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.  In overturning the Commonwealth’s Orders, the Court found the actions to be a well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus, but noted that those intentions alone were not sufficient to uphold the governmental action against a constitutional challenge.

Business Closures

On March 19, 2020, the Governor issued an Order regarding the closure of all Pennsylvania businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.”  The Court found that closing some, but allowing other “similarly situated” businesses to remain open, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment where the only difference between many of the businesses was size.  As an example, it noted that while smaller furniture, appliance and health product stores were closed, “big box” chain retailers such as Walmart, Lowes and The Home Depot remained open.  The Court did rule, however, that the Commonwealth had a rational basis for reopening the state on a regional county-by-county basis.  “Doing so recognized and respected the differences in population density, infrastructure and other factors relevant to the effort to address the virus.  Distinctions between counties are a historically accepted manner of statewide administration.”

Stay-at-Home Lockdown Orders

On April 1, 2020, the Commonwealth ordered all citizens of Pennsylvania to stay-at-home effective immediately “except as needed to access, support or provide life-sustaining businesses, emergency or government services.”  The Court ruled that the “stay-at-home” orders violated the right of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment because, in its view, the Commonwealth failed to demonstrate that the “burden” on individual liberty was reasonably necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, where less intrusive interventions were available.  The Court did draw a distinction, however, with actual “quarantines” based on “exposure to a communicable disease.”  While not specifically asked to rule on that issue, the Court signaled a willingness to uphold true quarantines as recommended by the CDC and ordered by the Pennsylvania Department of Health

Limits on Gatherings

On June 15, 2020, the Governor issued “targeted mitigation” orders limiting indoor gatherings to no more than 25 persons and prohibited outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people.  This measure sought to prevent “mega-spreading events.”  However, the Court ruled that the limits on public gatherings violated the First Amendment right of assembly, as they (1) were not narrowly tailored to address the varied prevalence of the virus across the Commonwealth, (2) applied to all Counties equally while failing to take into consideration the vast diversity of population density between those Counties and (3) inconsistently limited the number of those at political, social, cultural and educational gatherings as compared to commercial gatherings which were limited based on percentage of facility occupancy capacity. 

It should be noted that the Court did not address the issue of telework as none of the Plaintiffs in this case challenged the constitutionality of the orders requiring employers to allow employees to work from home where feasible.  Additionally, as the lockdown and business closure orders are now suspended, the practical impact of this Decision on those issues would be whether the Commonwealth’s Orders may be reinstated in the future, should a resurgence of the virus spread occur.  Moreover, it is unclear at this point whether the public may now immediately gather without limitation.as the Commonwealth has announced an intention to file an Appeal from this District Court Decision, seeking an emergency stay of the Order while the Appeal is pending. We will provide an update once the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the Commonwealth’s request for an emergency stay. 

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