Penn Hills School District v. Saunders, 021820 PACCA, 449 C.D. 2019

Docket Nº:449 C.D. 2019
Opinion Judge:MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, PRESIDENT JUDGE
Party Name:Penn Hills School District and Municipality of Penn Hills v. Rayco Saunders, Appellant
Judge Panel:BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, PRESIDENT JUDGE HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, JUDGE HONORABLE CHRISTINE FIZZANO CANNON, JUDGE
Case Date:February 18, 2020
Court:Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
 
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Penn Hills School District and Municipality of Penn Hills

v.

Rayco Saunders, Appellant

No. 449 C.D. 2019

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

February 18, 2020

OPINION NOT REPORTED

Submitted: November 8, 2019

BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, PRESIDENT JUDGE HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, JUDGE HONORABLE CHRISTINE FIZZANO CANNON, JUDGE

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, PRESIDENT JUDGE

Rayco Saunders, pro se, appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) entering judgment in favor of the Penn Hills School District and the Municipality of Penn Hills (collectively, Penn Hills) on its claim for unpaid property taxes, costs and attorney fees under the statute commonly known as the Municipal Claims and Tax Liens Act (Act).1 On appeal, Saunders asserts that the trial court deprived him of his due process rights by entering judgment against him. For the following reasons, we affirm.

Greater Northern Capital Investment Group is the record title owner of real property located at 10214 Frankstown Road, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On February 13, 2017, Penn Hills filed a writ of scire facias to reduce to judgment the delinquent taxes owed on the property for tax years 2006-2015. The Allegheny County Sheriff served Greater Northern Capital Investment Group with the writ on March 7, 2017. On July 31, 2017, after discovering that Saunders had an open quiet title action against the property, Penn Hills filed a motion to amend its writ of scire facias to add him as a defendant.2 The trial court granted the motion. On August 3, 2017, Penn Hills filed an amended and reissued writ of scire facias, naming Saunders as an owner of the property. In response thereto, Saunders filed an affidavit of defense and a counterclaim alleging defamation.[3]

In his affidavit of defense, Saunders disputed owing any taxes and stated that he would not waive his rights to remain silent, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to have proper notice of the charges against him presented via written complaint, to be assisted by counsel, and to face his accuser in open court. He stated that he could not be punished "until [he was] actually convicted by a jury of [his] peers." Supplemental Reproduced Record at 22b (S.R.R.).

On December 19, 2018, Penn Hills filed a "Petition for Rule to Show Cause Why Judgment Should Not Be Entered for Want of Sufficient Affidavit of Defense Pursuant to 53 P.S. §7271 and Answer to Counterclaim." S.R.R. 52b. The petition alleged that because Saunders failed to present a specific defense to Penn Hills' delinquent tax claim, Penn Hills was entitled to judgment for the entire amount of its claim plus penalties, interest, costs and attorney fees.

On March 19, 2018, the trial court heard argument on Penn Hills' petition. It found that Saunders did not even allege that Penn Hills' tax claims against the property were inaccurate. The trial court thus entered judgment in favor of Penn Hills in the amount of $32, 381.90 plus attorney fees. After Saunders appealed to this Court, the trial court ordered Saunders to file a Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(b) statement.[4] He did so, and the trial court issued a Rule 1925(a) opinion.[5]

In its Rule 1925(a) opinion, the trial court concluded that Saunders' affidavit of defense did not contain any specific averments that Penn Hills' tax claims were defective. Saunders offered only one general denial that "I, an 'Organic Living Soul', deny every paragraph, every sentence, every word and every letter of the Tax claims and municipal claims and any other 'claim' either seen, unseen or adhesive." S.R.R. 29b. The trial court found this was insufficient to comply with Section 20 of the Act, 53 P.S. §7187, which requires specific denials.6

The trial court further concluded that Saunders did not fully comprehend the nature and legal consequences of Penn Hills' tax claim since his affidavit stated that "I, an Organic Living Soul, do not understand these accusations." S.R.R. 21b. The trial court opined "that Saunders does not understand that a Scire Facias Tax Claim is an in rem proceeding, which strictly pertains to the property, and that he is not personally liable for the back taxes, interest, costs and attorney's fees." Trial Court Opinion, 5/29/2019, at 6. The court explained that contrary to Saunders' assertions, Penn Hills' tax claim was not a quasi-criminal proceeding attempting to punish Saunders personally. The trial court thus rejected Saunders' asserted violations of his right to due process.

Finally, the trial court found that the affidavit of defense showed that Saunders was aware that the property was encumbered by delinquent property taxes when he purportedly acquired an ownership...

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