Appeal from decree of Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County, No. 15, Equity Docket, Page 1, in case of First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Lancaster v. Tom Swift.
Harold E. Martin, for appellant.
Louis J. Farina, with him William E. Chillas, Jr., and May, Grove, Stork & Blakinger, for appellee.
Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Mr. Chief Justice Jones took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. Concurring Opinion by Mr. Justice Eagen. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Pomeroy. Mr. Justice O'Brien joins in this dissenting opinion.
The First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Lancaster was the holder of a mortgage on a parcel of realty in the city of Lancaster. Taxes became delinquent, and, pursuant to the Real Estate Tax Sale Law,*fn1 the property was sold at a properly advertised and conducted public judicial sale on October 23, 1971. First Federal did not send a representative to the sale. Appellant, Tom Swift, was the successful bidder at the duly-authorized sale and purchased the premises, as statutorily directed, "free and clear of all tax and municipal claims, mortgages, liens, charges and estates of whatsoever kind, except ground rents, separately taxed."*fn2
On January 7, 1972, First Federal instituted an equitable proceeding to set aside the judicial tax sale. The court, after a hearing, granted the requested relief. First Federal Savings & Loan Association v. Swift, 63 Lancaster L. Rev. 567 (Pa. C.P. 1973). This appeal followed.*fn3 We reverse.
First Federal sought equitable relief on the basis of an alleged mistake of fact. Several weeks prior to the October 23 public sale, Robert F. Keener, an employee of the Lancaster Redevelopment Authority, went to the tax claim bureau. Evidently, there had been some discussion between the Authority and First Federal concerning the purchase of the property in question. At the tax bureau, Keener "asked for the list of the tax sale that was coming up," without specifying the list for any particular date. The clerk handed Keener the sale list for October 30, 1971. Keener examined the list and discovered that this particular property was not there listed for sale.
Keener then gratuitously informed First Federal that the realty would not be sold on October 23. Keener was neither agent nor employee of either the tax claim bureau or First Federal. Without investigating further, First Federal relied on Keener's information and advised its attorney not to appear at the October 23 sale. First Federal concedes it had earlier received official notice of the sale.
The chancellor correctly observed that there is no basis at law for setting aside the sale. Proper notice was given, and the sale was held at the court's direction in conformity with the statutory requirements. The court therefore stated that "[t]here is no reason to disturb the sale unless equitable principles are involved which require the granting of relief to the plaintiff." It did, however, believe that equity empowered the court to grant relief despite First Federal's unilateral mistake. The chancellor set aside the sale.*fn4 In the
circumstances of this case, the grant of equitable relief was error.
Even recognizing that a court of equity has broad powers, "[i]t is a mistake to suppose, that a court of equity is amenable to no law, either common or statute, and assumes the rule of an arbitrary legislator in every particular case." Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law 732 (B. Gavit ed. 1941). When the rights of a party are clearly established by defined principles of law, equity should not change or unsettle those rights. Equity follows the law. Hedges v. Dixon County, 150 U.S. 182, 14 S. Ct. 71 (1893); Bauer v. P.A. Cutri Co., 434 Pa. 305, 253 A.2d 252 (1969); Scott v. Waynesburg Brewing Co., 256 Pa. 158, 100 A. 591 ...