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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. EVERETT AND GRACE RODEBAUGH (12/24/86)

decided: December 24, 1986.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, PETITIONER
v.
EVERETT AND GRACE RODEBAUGH, RESPONDENTS



Appeal from the Order of the Board of Claims in case of Everett G. Rodebaugh and Grace H. Rodebaugh, h/w v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, No. FC-192-80, dated November 21, 1985.

COUNSEL

Wayne M. Richardson, Chief Legal Counsel, with him, Ann M. Durst, for petitioner.

William L. Cremers, Cremers, Morris, Greenwood & Tunnell, for respondents.

Judges MacPhail and Palladino, and Senior Judge Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge MacPhail.

Author: Macphail

[ 102 Pa. Commw. Page 594]

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Commonwealth) appeals from a decision of the Board of Claims (Board) which found in favor of Grace H. Rodebaugh (Claimant)*fn1 and awarded her $240,065.69 together with interest. We affirm.

Claimant and her deceased husband were fee simple owners of a 162 acre estate, known as Welkinweir, from May 4, 1935 to May 31, 1977. On May 31, 1977, Claimant and her husband donated Welkinweir to the Commonwealth for use by West Chester State College. Pursuant to the "Statement of Principles" which accompanied the conveyance, the Commonwealth agreed to furnish "full and first-class maintenance" of the residence, contents and grounds according to standards as previously observed, casualty and liability insurance, and security service.*fn2 The agreement was executed by Claimant, her husband and President Charles G. Mayo of West Chester State College on November 10, 1976. Governor Shapp approved it on December 17, 1976.

During the first three fiscal years the agreement was in existence the Commonwealth abided by its terms. The General Assembly, however, in the General Appropriations Act for 1979-80 specifically denied funds to West Chester State College for maintenance of Welkinweir for the 1979-80 fiscal year. The prohibition has appeared in the General Appropriations Acts for the fiscal years 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1982-83.*fn3 Since July 24, 1979, the College has not maintained nor used the

[ 102 Pa. Commw. Page 595]

    property. At the time of the last hearing before the Board, Claimant was still in the process of having the ownership of Welkinweir transferred to a non-profit entity which would use Welkinweir in accordance with the donative intent Claimant and her husband originally displayed in donating the property to the College.

On December 18, 1980, Claimant sued the Commonwealth before the Board for $37,114.85, plus expenses incurred after the Statement of Claim was filed, for the upkeep of Welkinweir. The Board on November 21, 1985 awarded Claimant and her husband $240,065.69, which sum includes all of the expenses Claimant had proven to that point, plus interest at the rate of six percent per annum. The Commonwealth has appealed the Board's award to this Court.

This Court's scope of review of an order of the Board of Claims is limited to determining whether necessary factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether an error of law was committed. Nilsen v. Department of Public Welfare, 100 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 568, 514 A.2d 1025 (1986).

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

With our scope of review in mind, we turn to the first issue raised by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth avers that the Board of Claims lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear this case. The Commonwealth claims that this is so because the Rodebaughs contended, and the Board of Claims held, that the amendments to the appropriations acts violated their constitutional rights under Pa. Const. art. I, § 17, which prohibits the legislature from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts.

The Commonwealth's attack on the Board's jurisdiction seems to be two-fold. The first prong of the attack is that the Board lacks subject matter jurisdiction because

[ 102 Pa. Commw. Page 596]

    the Commonwealth's disputed obligation turns not on principles of contract but rather turns on principles of statutory or decisional law. In support of this proposition the Commonwealth cites Delaware River Port Authority v. Thornburgh, 500 Pa. 629, 459 A.2d 717 (1983). We find this case to be inapposite.

In Delaware River Port Authority, our Supreme Court found that the Board of Claims lacked jurisdiction because the case dealt with "a determination of the parties' rights and obligations under the Delaware River Port Authority Compact, a statutory issue under Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and federal law. . . ." Id. at 634, 459 A.2d at 720. In the case at bar, the rights and obligations are not based on statutory law, they are based on the Statement of Principles signed by the parties. The Statement of Principles is a simple contract, akin perhaps to a sales agreement accompanying a conveyance of land.

We do find the case at bar similar to another case cited by the Commonwealth, Emergency Medical Services Council of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Inc. v. Department of Health, 499 Pa. 1, 451 A.2d 206 (1982). There our Supreme Court held that the case was under the Board's jurisdiction even though the Emergency Medical Services Act*fn4 provided that certain entities were recognized as having the right to receive a contract to provide services to the Commonwealth. The Court concluded that the nature of the rights of the parties flowed from the contract itself.

In the instant case, the gift of Welkinweir from Claimant and her husband was accepted by the Governor pursuant to Section 513 of The Administrative Code

[ 102 Pa. Commw. Page 597]

    of 1929,*fn5 71 P.S. § 193. That section gives the state colleges, along with other state agencies, the right to accept gifts of realty provided the General Assembly approves. However, the rights of the parties do not flow from this statute; they flow directly from the Statement of Principles, a contract, executed by Claimant, her husband, and the President of West Chester State College.

As for the second prong of its attack, the Commonwealth avers that the Rodebaughs were alleging violations of their constitutional rights and, hence, their claim sounded in trespass. The Commonwealth then cites two cases for the proposition that the Board cannot hear claims sounding in trespass, but only contract claims sounding in assumpsit: Department of Revenue, Bureau of State Lotteries v. Irwin, 82 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 266, 475 A.2d 902 (1984) and Fred S. James & Co. v. Board of Arbitration of Claims, 44 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 289, 403 A.2d 1051 (1979). The central issue of this case is not the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the spending prohibition, it is the fact that the Commonwealth entered into a contract that it later breached. The fact that the breach of this contract was brought about by a spending prohibition passed by the General Assembly does not bear on the issue of whether the Commonwealth breached the contract, an issue the Board of Claims was surely competent to decide.*fn6 It may bear on the issue of where the Commonwealth

[ 102 Pa. Commw. Page 598]

    will find the money to pay the award, but it does not bear on the Claimant's right to receive the award.

It is true that the Board does not have the power to declare that a statute is unconstitutional. The General Assembly did not give the Board the power to do so. However, the test for determining whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction is whether that court is competent to determine controversies of the general class to which a case presented belongs, and the controlling question is whether the court has the power to enter upon the inquiry and not whether it is unable to grant the relief sought. Vespaziani v. Department of Revenue, 40 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 54, 396 A.2d 489 (1979).

In the instant case, the Board certainly is competent to determine controversies of the general class to which the case belongs. Under Vespaziani, even if declaring the spending prohibitions unconstitutional were necessary to grant Claimant relief, the Board would nevertheless have subject matter jurisdiction. However, we feel that such a declaration by the Board is not necessary. All the Board was asked to decide, and all it did decide, was whether the Commonwealth owed Claimant a certain sum of money growing out of a breach of contract.

We conclude that the Board possessed subject matter ...


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