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GARRETT v. BAMFORD

May 20, 1975

DONALD F. GARRETT, SHARON B. GARRETT, VERA A. TURPIN
v.
JAMES B. BAMFORD, CHAIRMAN, DAVID SHIREY, STEWART DeTURK, BOARD OF ASSESSMENT APPEALS COUNTY OF BERKS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: TROUTMAN

 TROUTMAN, J.

 In this action plaintiffs charge defendants with violations of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, certain Pennsylvania statutes, the Fourteenth Amendment, and Articles I and VIII of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The named plaintiffs and the class of persons they purport to represent own properties in residential areas of Reading and Berks County, populated predominantly by non-whites, which have allegedly been assessed for taxation by defendants at disproportionately higher values than similar properties located in substantially all-white areas. Defendants, members of the Board of Assessment Appeals of Berks County, are alleged to have systematically and intentionally discriminated against plaintiffs by assessing their properties at higher percentages or ratios of actual value causing plaintiffs to pay disproportionately high taxes. Plaintiffs do not seek a reduction in their individual assessments per se ; they pray for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief restraining such alleged violations of state and federal law by requiring a reassessment, under this Court's immediate and continuous supervision, of all owner-occupied residential property in defendants' jurisdiction and the yearly submission of proof that such new assessments are uniform and non-discriminatory. Defendants have responded with a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under F.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) which is now before the Court. *fn1"

 The complaint sets forth violations of both federal and state law. Counts I and II allege violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, *fn2" 1983 *fn3" and the Fourteenth Amendment in that defendants assessed plaintiffs' property at disproportionately high ratios compared to assessments of similar property in exclusively white areas of population concentration. Counts III and IV allege that such practices contravene Article I, § 2 and Article VIII, § 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution *fn4" as well as 72 P.S. § 5344(a). *fn5" Count V charges that defendants failed to make annual assessments of "properties in predominantly or exclusively white areas which are increasing in value and in substantially non-white areas which are decreasing in value." Finally, Count VI characterizes defendants' practice as unlawful discrimination based on economic status in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

 The keystone of defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction rests on the Tax Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1341, which provides:

 
"The district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State."

 As defendants characterize this action, this federal court prima facie lacks jurisdiction because the injunctive relief sought would perforce require the invalidation of the current assessments of relevant properties in the county. And, as plaintiffs have a plain, speedy and efficient remedy in the courts of Pennsylvania, i.e., by filing a bill in equity or in pursuing the applicable statutory procedure for assessment appeals, this Court must refrain from intermeddling into what is a purely localized fiscal function conducted by county officials in their administrative capacity. Plaintiffs counter that the statutory procedure for assessment appeals is defective and, therefore, inadequate for two reasons: first, individual appeals of assessments by plaintiffs would entail a piecemeal, cumbersome and lengthy process which, in the final analysis, would not yield the broad injunctive relief they now seek. Second, this procedure is attacked on the ground that it is incapable of dealing effectively with and eradicating alleged neighborhood-by-neighborhood discrimination because the proof required in each assessment appeal would involve a comparison of the subject property only with similar properties in the same area. This procedure, plaintiffs contend, could only perpetuate the alleged neighborhood-by-neighborhood pattern of discrimination. In addition, it is asserted that equitable relief is not available under current pertinent Pennsylvania cases which have uniformly narrowed the taxpayers' remedy to an attack on assessments by the statutory procedure, rather than by a bill in equity, thus leaving plaintiffs without a plain, speedy and efficient remedy in the state courts. Finally, plaintiffs urge that the paramount national policy as codified in the Civil Rights Acts and refined by thousands of court decisions overrides the restrictive federal jurisdictional limits of the Tax Injunction Act. *fn6"

 At the outset, we note that the applicable procedure to appeal assessments under Pennsylvania law is set forth in 72 P.S. §§ 5348, 5349, and 5350. After assessments are completed, notice must be given to property owners whose assessments have been increased or decreased. § 5349 provides that persons who are aggrieved *fn7" may appeal by notifying the Board of Assessment Appeals (defendants herein) prior to September 1. Thereafter from September 1 to October 1, the Board must hear all the assessment appeals, after which appropriate orders for changes are incorporated into the tax rolls and sent to the appropriate political subdivisions. 72 P.S. § 5349. The taxpayer may appeal to the Court of Common Pleas, § 5350, where, after a plenary hearing de novo and a finding that the assessment was erroneous, the Court may award an exoneration or restitution under § 5350d. § 5350 requires the Court "to make such changes therein as may be right and proper", and further provides:

 
"* * * the Court shall determine, from the evidence submitted at the hearing, what ratio of assessed value to actual value was used generally in the taxing district, and the court shall direct the application of the ratio so found to the value of the property which is the subject matter of the appeal, and such shall be the assessment. * * *"

 Plaintiffs argue that the comparison of valuation is limited to properties within the same neighborhood to support the proposition that the statutory remedy is inadequate. Appeal of Brooks Building, 391 Pa. 94, 137 A.2d 273 (1958); Appeal of Charlotte E. Rick, 402 Pa. 209, 167 A.2d 261 (1961). As plaintiffs put it, these remedies are "unsuited for the correction of discrimination between entire neighborhoods and are thus inadequate remedy for the correction of wholesale discrimination." (Brief at page 9) Moreover, plaintiffs point to the statutory burden imposed upon them to prove that an individual assessment is improper, 72 P.S. § 5350(b), *fn8" and argue that the procedure unfairly pits the property owner, with limited resources and experience, against the board, armed with the expertise developed in numerous assessments and appeals therefrom.

 Thus, from the foregoing overview of the assessment appeal procedure outlined by statute, plaintiffs contend that the precise relief sought by plaintiffs is not within the power of the Board of Assessment Appeals to grant. So construed, plaintiffs understandably contend that the statutory remedy is "inadequate" and, therefore, not a "plain, speedy and efficient remedy" within the meaning of § 1341. Such conclusion presupposes that the statute will be so literally and limitedly construed as to preclude the resolution of inequitable neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessments. True, the statute, on its face, is understandably designed to take care of the usual, ordinary and expected situation involving individual appeals within a taxing district and a neighborhood. However, we cannot assume that the use, for example, of multiple or mass appeals within and across neighborhood lines or other possible procedures combined with the ingenuity expected of assessment authorities to reach the inequities, if any, presented and proved, will not obtain a decision on the issues presented notwithstanding facial deficiencies as to the individual taxpayer's remedies in the statute. Indeed, something not unlike a mass appeal is contemplated by the statute. Specifically, § 5350i provides:

 
"The corporate authorities of any borough, town, township, school and poor district, who may feel aggrieved by any assessment of property or subjects of taxation for its corporate purposes, shall have the right to appeal therefrom in entirety or by individual assessments to the board or to the court of common pleas or the Superior or Supreme Court in the same manner, subject to the same procedure, and with like effect as if such appeal were taken by a taxable with respect to his assessment, and in addition may take an appeal from any decision of the board or court of common pleas as though it had been a party to the proceedings before such board or court even though it was not such a party in fact."

 The procedure utilized by a Board of Assessment Appeals to dispose of such an appeal by a school district, for example, must encompass the simultaneous consideration of many properties. Here the relief sought by plaintiffs involves the identical proposition -- simultaneous consideration of many properties. Methods employed by the Board in discharging its statutory duties outlined in § ...


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