The opinion of the court was delivered by: HUYETT
Invoking 28 U.S.C. section 1343(3) and (4) as well as 42 U.S.C. section 1983, 28 U.S.C. sections 2201 and 2202, and Fed.R.Civ.P. 57, plaintiffs, both organizational and individual plaintiffs, bring this action
for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania Senior Citizens Property Tax Assistance Act
(the Act). Plaintiffs contend that section 4751-4(d)
of the Act offends both the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution because it impermissibly excludes from benefits renters who receive public assistance from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
The individual plaintiffs in this action, Helen Melso, Ernest McRae, Kathryn Mecredy, and Ruth Thompson, all filed claims under the Act for 1972 and 1973 benefits and, although otherwise eligible, were denied all or a part of their claims because they were renters receiving public assistance from the Department of Public Welfare. The organizational plaintiffs, Action Alliance for Senior Citizens of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization, are both groups which have as their members renters who are ineligible for benefits under the Act because of their receipt of public assistance. Defendant Milton J. Shapp is the Governor of Pennsylvania; defendant George J. Mowod is the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue; defendant Stanley Weiss, Jr., is the Director of the Property Tax Assistance Bureau; and defendant Paul Standeven is the Administrator of the Philadelphia Office of the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. All defendants are state officers charged in various ways with administering and implementing the Act.
In recognition of the severe economic plight of certain senior citizens, widows, widowers and permanently disabled persons who are real property owners or renters with fixed and limited incomes who are faced with rising living costs and constantly increasing tax burdens upon their homesteads, the General Assembly, pursuant to the mandates of the Constitutional Convention of 1968, considers it to be a matter of sound public policy to make special provisions for property tax assistance or rent assistance in lieu of property taxes to that class of senior citizens, widows, widowers and permanently disabled persons who are real property taxpayers or renters who are without adequate means of support to enable them to remain in peaceable possession of their homes and relieving their economic burden.
This present version of the Act does, however, expressly exclude from benefits any renter during any month that he or she receives public assistance from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare;
homeowners on public assistance are not so excluded. Further, as interpreted by the Property Tax Assistance Bureau, which administers the Act, renters are excluded during the months they receive public assistance whether the assistance received is a partial or a full grant.
Effective January 1975 the Bureau will no longer consider renters who receive government subsidy only in the form of Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I.)
as receiving public assistance from the Department of Public Welfare, and these people will, therefore, be eligible for rent assistance under the Act.
For those eligible, the Act provides up to $200 a year in rent or property tax assistance, the amount any particular claimant receives depending on his or her yearly household income and the annual amount paid for rent or property tax.
According to the terms of the Act, the State Lottery Fund is the source of payment both of approved claims and the costs of administering the Act.
Defendants raise a variety of threshold challenges to the validity of this action. Of these challenges the two most substantial are to the capacity of the organizational plaintiffs to bring this lawsuit and the standing of all plaintiffs to maintain it.
First defendants contend that organizational plaintiffs, Action Alliance and Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization (PWRO), because of their status as unincorporated associations, lack capacity to sue under both Pennsylvania law and Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b)(1). Thus they challenge the very ability of organizational plaintiffs to bring this action, their right to get past the courthouse door so to speak. We find it unnecessary to determine whether or not plaintiffs have capacity to sue under Pennsylvania law
since we find that Rule 17(b)(1) clearly confers capacity on both organizations to bring this particular action. Rule 17(b)(1) confers capacity on an unincorporated association to "sue or be sued in its common name for the purpose of enforcing for or against it a substantive right existing under the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . ." Defendants read this language very narrowly to confer capacity only in those instances where the substantive right asserted belongs to the unincorporated association as an entity and not to its individual members. As we understand defendants' argument, this would limit the capacity to sue granted unincorporated associations by Rule 17(b)(1) to the rare case in which, for example, the challenge was to the government's taking without compensation property held in the name of the association itself. The cases defendants cite in their trial brief in support of this narrow reading are unpersuasive,
and we do not believe Rule 17(b)(1) can be read as narrowly as defendants would have us read it.
Second defendants urge that for various reasons none of the plaintiffs have standing to maintain this action. Beginning with individual plaintiffs Melso, McRae, and Mecredy, defendants argue, in a two-step analysis, that all three plaintiffs lack standing. First defendants contend that plaintiffs' claim for prospective relief is moot because, in the case of plaintiff Melso, she no longer receives any form of public assistance; in the cases of plaintiffs McRae and Mecredy, the only assistance received is in the form of S.S.I., and, under the new regulations promulgated by the Bureau of Tax Assistance, both plaintiffs are now eligible for benefits under the Act. Next defendants contend that under Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 39 L. Ed. 2d 662, 94 S. Ct. 1347 (1974), these plaintiffs are not entitled to retroactive benefits.
Putting these two steps together, defendants conclude that plaintiffs are without standing to sue. Mootness and standing are separate concepts, of course; more tellingly, however, defendants' argument confuses lack of standing with a state's possible defense to a plaintiff's request for retroactive monetary relief. We find that these plaintiffs had standing at the time suit was filed.
As to the remaining individual plaintiff, Ruth Thompson, defendants maintain that she lacks standing because she is ineligible for benefits under the Act for a reason other than her receipt of public assistance, that is, she has not established her widowhood under Pennsylvania law although she has not heard from her husband in thirty years. A review of the Pennsylvania cases cited by both plaintiffs and defendants
suggests that a factfinder could go either way in deciding whether or not Mrs. Thompson is entitled to a presumption of her husband's death. However this may be, she has apparently never been notified by the Bureau of Tax Assistance that she is not a widow for the purposes of the Act nor has the Bureau challenged her assertion of widowhood in any way. Under these circumstances we find plaintiff Thompson has standing to sue.
Moving to the organizational plaintiffs, defendants question the standing to sue of PWRO on the ground that plaintiff was able to place in the record the names of only six members, out of a total of 3500 members, who would be eligible for benefits under the Act except that they are renters on public assistance. Although we might feel more confident of PWRO's taking a vigorous, adversarial stance had plaintiff been able to identify more members adversely affected by the Act, we nonetheless find that plaintiff has sufficiently alleged injury to its members to attain standing under the ...