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.
Jones, C. J., and Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. O'Brien, J., joins in this opinion. Manderino, J., concurs in the result. Roberts, J., filed a concurring opinion in which O'Brien, J., joins. Jones, C. J., and Eagan and Nix, JJ., dissent.
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.*fn1 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.,*fn2 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.*fn3
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.*fn4 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
(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 ...