Borough of Green Tree v. Board of Property Assessments, Appeals and Review of Allegheny County

Decision Date20 November 1974
Docket NumberAppeal of BOROUGH OF CRAFTON at No. 142.
Citation328 A.2d 819,459 Pa. 268
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Donald J. Lee, Dougherty, Larrimer & Lee Pittsburgh, for appellant at No. 141.

Gilbert E. Morcroft, Pittsburgh, for appellant at No. 142.

William G. Boyle, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott Pittsburgh, for appellant at No. 159.

Francis A. Barry, County Solicitor, Thomas M. Rutter, Jr., Asst County Solicitor, Pittsburgh, John F. Murphy, William R Caroselli, Asst. County Solicitors, Pittsburgh, for appellee.



POMEROY Justice.

On February 13, 1970, the Borough of Greentree and a number of individual residents of that borough who owned land and paid Allegheny County real property taxes filed a complaint in equity against the Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review (herein the 'Board') and the three Commissioners of Allegheny County, challenging the constitutionality of certain sections of the Second Class County Assessment Law, Act of June 21, 1939, P.L. 626, as amended, 72 P.S. § 5452.1 et seq. Section 7 of that statute, 72 P.S. § 5452.7, provides that the Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review may--

'divide the county into three districts, as nearly equal as possible in subjects of taxation, and may provide that triennial assessments shall be made each year, but for only one of such three districts during any one year. In order to inaugurate such system, a triennial assessment may be made for the first district during the year immediately following one (year) in which a triennial assessment was made for the county as a whole, and a triennial assessment may be made for the second district during the second year following one in which a triennial assessment was made for the county as a whole.'

In 1969 the Board undertook to assess all property in the Southern Triennial District for the tax years 1970--1972, utilizing 50% As the uniform common ratio of assessed value to fair market value. [1] Property in the other two triennial districts was not scheduled for reassessment until 1970 (for the 1971--1973 triennium) and 1971 (for the 1972--1974 triennium) respectively. Plaintiffs in their complaint made a two-pronged attack on the 1969 reassessment of the Southern District. They claimed first that section 7 of the Second Class County Assessment Law, 72 P.S. § 5452.7, which authorizes the division of Allegheny County into triennial districts, is itself unconstitutional. Secondly, they claimed that the uniform common ratio of 50% Was being applied initially to the Southern District only, while the two remaining triennial districts were permitted to remain at some lower, unspecified ratio. Under either challenge, plaintiffs claimed that they were being subjected to violation of the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Art. VIII, § 1, P.S., [2] and of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution of the United States. Fifteen additional boroughs and townships located in the Southern Triennial District intervened.

The defendant Board and County Commissioners filed a responsive pleading on the merits in which they asserted that section 7 of the Second Class County Assessment Law was not unconstitutional and that the uniform common ratio of 50% Had not been applied to the Southern District in 1969 alone, but rather had been in general use in Allegheny County for a number of years. [3]

The Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County noted that a serious question existed as to the jurisdiction of that court to adjudicate the plaintiffs' action in view of the existence of a statutory appeal procedure appearing in the Second Class County Assessment Law, 72 P.S. § 5452.11, 5452.12 (Supp.1974--75), and that it was the obligation of the court to raise and decide the jurisdictional question Sua sponte. [4] The lower court therefore ordered briefs and arguments directed to the question, following which it dismissed the complaint on the ground that there existed a statutory remedy and that the remedy was adequate.

Six of the municipality-plaintiffs and six of the individual taxpayer-plaintiffs took an appeal to this Court from the dismissal of their equity complaint. We transferred the appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Borough of Greentree v. Board of Property Assessment, 446 Pa. 309, 285 A.2d 165 (1971). That court affirmed the dismissal unanimously and adopted the opinion written by the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (Olbum, J.). Allegheny County, Southern District, Tax Assessment Appeals, 7 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 291, 298 A.2d 643 (1972). Three of the municipalities (Greentree, Crafton and Brentwood) and two of the individual taxpayers (Frank and Charlotte Beitel) petitioned this Court for allocatur, which we granted.

The appellees contend that equity was without jurisdiction in this case because of our holding in Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company v. Indiana County Board of Assessment & Revision of Taxes, 438 Pa. 506, 266 A.2d 78 (1970) ('Rochester'). The courts below likewise considered Rochester to be controlling. Appellants, on the other hand, rely primarily on our earlier decision in Lynch v. Owen J. Roberts School District, 430 Pa. 461, 244 A.2d 1 (1968) ('Lynch') for the contrary proposition that equity does have jurisdiction.

In the latter case, Lynch, we held, speaking through Mr. Justice Roberts, that--

'(w)hile we agree with the general proposition that equity will not entertain an action where plaintiff has an adequate statutory remedy at law, we also acknowledge the presence of an exception to that doctrine, existing where a taxing statute is made the subject of a Constitutional challenge.'

Id. at 465, 244 A.2d at 3 (emphasis in original). [5] Two years later, however, in the Rochester decision, this Court (speaking through Mr. Justice Cohen, who had dissented in Lynch) stated the law of equitable jurisdiction over cases raising constitutional questions as follows:

'(W)hat is required to confer jurisdiction on an equity court is the existence of a substantial question of constitutionality (and not a mere allegation) And the absence of an adequate statutory remedy.'

438 Pa. at 508, 266 A.2d at 79 (emphasis supplied). The important italicized qualification in Rochester--'the absence of an adequate statutory remedy'--is not part of the Lynch formulation in a case where a constitutional challenge is made.

Although the Court on two occasions prior to the instant case has sought to reconcile Lynch with Rochester, see Crosson v. Downingtown Area School District, 440 Pa. 468, 473---474, 270 A.2d 377 (1970); Campbell v. Coatesville Area School District, 440 Pa. 496, 499--500, 270 A.2d 385 (1970), we would be less than candid were we not to acknowledge that tension exists between the two opinions. Our task in these appeals is to attempt a further resolution of that tension and the consequent confusion that has developed.

The view expressed in Lynch is, as above indicated, that the presence of a constitutional question in an equity action challenging a taxing or other regulatory statute Always grounds jurisdiction in the court to adjudicate, regardless of the presence of a legislatively-prescribed route of appeal, however adequate that may be. [6]

There is language in our decisions which supports this view. In Y.M.C.A. v. Reading, 402 Pa. 592, 167 A.2d 469 (1961), for example, Mr. Justice Cohen (a dissenter in Lynch) carefully reviewed the history of equity jurisdiction where the legislature has provided a statutory appeal route:

'(I)n Jacobs v. Fetzer (381 Pa. 262, 112 A.2d 356 (1955)), the court recognized the first-stated rule (that 'a statutory remedy must be pursued, if one exists, in preference to any other proceeding') by quoting from the Dougherty case (v. Philadelphia, 314 Pa. 298, 171 A. 583 (1934)) to the effect that equity has jurisdiction where a total want of power to tax appears. Hence, it does not seem inappropriate to review the history of this dichotomy to discover if equity jurisdiction should properly attach in a case like the present one Where no allegations that the statute is unconstitutional on its face or is being applied unconstitutionally are made . . .' 402 Pa. at 596, 167 A.2d at 471 (emphasis supplied).

The Court in Y.M.C.A. held equity powerless to adjudicate 'absent a challenge to the constitutionality of a statute or of official action thereunder.' Ibid., at 598, 167 A.2d at 472. See also Studio Theatres, Inc. v. Washington, 418 Pa. 73, 79, 209 A.2d 802, 805 (1965) ('The teaching of our case law is that, where the controversy involves a challenge to the constitutional validity of a taxing statute or ordinance, such a controversy falls within the general class of cases wherein equity does have jurisdiction and competency to act'); Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. v. Commonwealth, 410 Pa. 571, 578, 190 A.2d 111, 115 (1963) ("It is too well settled for argument that equity will enjoin taxation for want of power to tax").

The contrary position, which has generally prevailed in this Court, is also well-supported in the case law. We are of the view, as expressed in Rochester, that the mere fact that a constitutional question is raised as to the validity of a statute does not, without more, vest jurisdiction in a court of equity to adjudicate. The additional element required to confer equitable jurisdiction is either the absence of a statutorily-prescribed remedy or, if such a remedy exists then a showing of...

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  • Pa. State Educ. Ass'n v. Commonwealth
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • August 21, 2012
    ...remedy renders the exercise of equitable jurisdiction improper. See Borough of Green Tree v. Bd. of Prop. Assessments, Appeals & Review of Allegheny Cnty., 459 Pa. 268, 276, 328 A.2d 819, 823 (1974) (plurality). With regard to the process set forth in the RTKL, the majority observed that ag......

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