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AMRIT LAL v. WEST CHESTER AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT ET AL. (01/18/83)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: January 18, 1983.

AMRIT LAL, PETITIONER
v.
WEST CHESTER AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT ET AL., RESPONDENTS

Original jurisdiction in case of Amrit Lal v. West Chester Area School Districts, Tax Claim Bureau, Tax Collector, Thornbury Township and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Department of Education.

COUNSEL

Eugene A. Steger, Jr., Steger & Howell, Ltd., for petitioner.

Randy L. Sebastian, with him Mary Ann Rossi, MacElree, Harvey, Gallagher, O'Donnell & Featherman, Ltd., for respondents.

Marybeth A. Stanton, Deputy Attorney General, with her Allen C. Warshaw, Deputy Attorney General, and LeRoy S. Zimmerman, Attorney General, for respondent, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Education.

Judges Blatt, Williams, Jr. and Craig, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Craig.

Author: Craig

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 237]

In this original jurisdiction matter, West Chester Area School District and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 238]

    have filed preliminary objections to Amrit Lal's complaint, which alleges procedural defects in the implementation of the school district's tax and challenges the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania system of school financing which primarily relies on local tax revenues.

In 1977, Amrit Lal owned a tax parcel numbered 66-2-37, containing five acres, two dwellings and a building, assessed at $21,030, in Thornbury Township. Lal resided in West Chester.

That year, the school district delivered tax duplicates for parcel 66-2-37 to the tax collector of Thornbury Township to send to Lal. Lal denies that he received notice of these school taxes; he paid taxes for other properties owned by him in the school district for the year 1977. In April, 1978, Lal offered to pay the tax due ($1,724.46) on parcel 66-2-37, but he refused to pay the 10% late penalty. Accordingly, the tax collector refused to accept the payment and lodged a tax claim against that parcel.

Lal filed exceptions to the tax claim; after an evidentiary hearing, the Tax Claim Bureau of Chester County disallowed the exceptions. Then Lal petitioned the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County to dismiss, reduce, or set aside the bureau's lien against his property. Almost four years later, Lal amended his petition to join the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its Department of Education as defendants in order to challenge the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's public school financing system.

In March, 1982, the Commonwealth defendants filed preliminary objections asserting, among other points, lack of jurisdiction in the county court. Lal then requested, and the common pleas court granted, a transfer of his action to this court. The Commonwealth's additional preliminary objections, as well as

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 239]

    those of the school district, raising Lal's lack of standing and his failure to state a claim, are now before this court.

In Count 1 of his complaint, Lal asserts that: (1) the school district and township have failed to meet the notice requirements prescribed in Section 6 of the Act of May 25, 1945 (1945 Act), P.L. 1050, as amended, 72 P.S. § 5511.6, (2) the tax collector improperly refused Lal's offer to pay the tax without the penalty, and (3) "the school taxing rates used in 1977 for school district tax based upon assessment of real property were arbitrary and not related to the actual fiscal needs of the respective taxing district."*fn1

In concluding that the demurrers to Lal's first challenge must be sustained, we note that, despite the notice provisions of section 6 of the 1945 act,*fn2 section 7 of that act*fn3 clearly provides that:

Failure to receive notice shall not relieve any taxpayer from the payment of any taxes imposed by any taxing district, such taxpayer shall be charged with his taxes as though he had received notice.

Our Superior Court, in considering the 1945 Act, said:

The absence of notice and hearing, then, prior to the collection of the tax in controversy, deprived the [taxpayer] of no constitutional right. Due process of law does not require that a taxpayer have the privilege of contesting a tax before it is levied and collected. . . .

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 240]

    the less need exists for the agency involved to throw light on the issue through exercise of its specialized fact-finding function or application of its administrative expertise.

Id. at 281, 328 A.2d at 825.

Although Green Tree involved a plurality opinion, our Supreme Court, in Shenango Valley, noted that:

[I]t was clear from [Green Tree] that four members of this court agreed the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies would not bar equitable intervention where there are both a substantial question of constitutionality and the absence of an adequate statutory remedy. [Emphasis in original.]

Id. at , 451 A.2d at 438.*fn5

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 242]

Here, however, Lal's challenge focuses not on the general validity of the taxing statute, but on whether that statute has been administered arbitrarily. Therefore, because Lal's constitutional challenge in Count 1 does not involve a direct attack upon the constitutionality of the property tax, it does not rise to the level of a "substantial question of constitutionality." Id.; see also Hudson v. Union County, 50 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 378, 382, 413 A.2d 1148, 1150 (1980), in citing Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Indiana County Board of Property Assessments, 438 Pa. 506, 508, 266 A.2d 78, 79 (1974).

An adequate statutory remedy exists by which Lal could have challenged his assessment and, in so doing, given a tax appeals board an opportunity to review his general allegation that his assessment was excessive; a taxpayer can challenge his assessment under Section 701(b) of The Fourth to Eighth Class County Assessment Law, Act of May 21, 1943, P.L. 571, as amended, 72 P.S. § 5453.701(b), which provides that

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 243]

"any person aggrieved by any assessment . . . may appeal to the board for relief." Section 704 of that law, 72 P.S. § 5453.704, provides for a further appeal to the court of common pleas. Hudson, 50 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. at 382, 413 A.2d at 1150.*fn6

Counts 2 and 3 of Lal's complaint challenge the taxing scheme for educational purposes in Pennsylvania. The underlying assumption of that constitutional challenge*fn7 is that the Commonwealth's heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund education causes financial disparity among the school districts and results in a failure to provide a thorough and efficient system of education as mandated by the Pennsylvania constitution, art. 3, § 14. However, Lal has failed to state a cause of action because he fails to allege any legal injury to any student in West Chester School District, and further, he fails to allege that students are being denied an adequate, basic education. See Danson v. Casey, 484 Pa. 415, 399 A.2d 360 (1979).*fn8

[ 71 Pa. Commw. Page 244]

Accordingly, the preliminary objections of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the school district must be sustained because Lal has failed to state a cause of action, and, as to the assessment challenge, he has failed to pursue adequate statutory remedies.

Order

Now, January 18, 1983, the preliminary objections of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the West Chester Area School District are sustained and the complaint of Amrit Lal, No. 12 T.D. 1982, is hereby dismissed.

Disposition

Preliminary objections sustained. Complaint dismissed.


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