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decided: December 23, 1987.


Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the case of Larry P. Gaitens v. The Borough of Crafton, No. GD 83-4646.


Edward A. Witt, with him, Nancy L. Rackoff and Grace S. Harris, for appellant.

Larry P. Gaitens, appellee, for himself.

Edwin J. Martin, Weisel, Xides & Odermatt, for amicus curiae, Borough of Forest Hills.

President Judge Crumlish, Jr. and Judges Craig, MacPhail, Doyle, Barry, Colins and Palladino. Opinion by Judge Palladino. Judge Colins dissents.

Author: Palladino

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 148]

The Borough of Crafton (Borough) appeals a decision of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas holding that the Borough's $25 tax on the privilege of occupying property in the Borough was invalid because it was not in compliance with The Local Tax Enabling Act (LTEA).*fn1

On November 30, 1982, the Borough enacted Ordinance No. 1409. This ordinance provided for

     the assessment, levy, regulating, and collection for general revenue purposes of the annual tax in the amount of twenty-five ($25.00) dollars on the privilege of using or occupying premises within

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 149]

    the Borough of Crafton at anytime during the calendar year 1983 and each year thereafter, to be paid by each person exercising such privilege ; requiring the filing of returns; providing for administration and collection of the tax; and imposing penalties for violation. (Emphasis added.)

On March 18, 1983, Larry P. Gaitens (Gaitens), a resident of the Borough and subject to the tax, filed an equity suit in the trial court contesting the validity of the ordinance and seeking an injunction prohibiting the Borough from collecting the tax. Gaitens contended the ordinance was invalid on its face because it violated the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Pa. Const. art. 8, § 7, and the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. In the alternative, Gaitens contended the tax was invalid because the LTEA does not provide authority for it.

On March 21, 1983 Gaitens moved for a preliminary injunction against the Borough. The motions judge stayed action on this motion pending the filing of preliminary objections by the Borough and their disposition. The Borough filed preliminary objections, including an objection to jurisdiction, on March 29, 1983. The trial court dismissed the Borough's preliminary objections in an opinion issued on July 14, 1983. After the pleadings were completed, a stipulation of facts was submitted to the trial court which indicated that the only issue in dispute was the power of the Borough to enact the ordinance imposing the tax in question.*fn2 The

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 150]

    parties then filed cross motions for summary judgment. Argument was held on these motions in June, 1984. On April 22, 1986, the trial court granted Gaitens' motion for summary judgment while denying the Borough's. The trial court determined the ordinance was invalid because it constituted a per capita (head) tax of $25 in violation of the $10 limitation on such a tax found in section 8 of the LTEA, 53 P.S. § 6908.*fn3

On appeal to this court, the Borough contends that the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction in this equity case because Gaitens had an adequate remedy at law which he failed to pursue. Additionally, the Borough asserts that the tax provided for by the ordinance is authorized by the LTEA and is not violative of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions.


The Borough places the emphasis of its jurisdictional argument on Gaitens' failure to pursue the statutory remedy provided by section 6 of the LTEA, 53 P.S. § 6906. Section 6 provides, in pertinent part:

No tax levied for the first time by any political subdivision to which this act applies shall go into effect until thirty days from the time of the adoption of the ordinance . . . levying the tax.

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 151]

Within said thirty days, . . . taxpayers of the political subdivision not less than twenty-five in number aggrieved by the ordinance or resolution shall have the right to appeal therefrom. . . . It shall be the duty of the court to declare the ordinance and the tax imposed thereby to be valid unless it concluded that the ordinance is unlawful or finds that the tax imposed is excessive or unreasonable. . . .

The Borough acknowledges that section 6 does not provide the exclusive remedy for challenging the validity of a taxing ordinance enacted pursuant to the LTEA, William Penn Parking Garage, Inc. v. City of Pittsburgh, 464 Pa. 168, 346 A.2d 269 (1975), but argues that Gaitens has not met the requirements for equity jurisdiction as set out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Borough of Greentree v. Board of Property Assessments, 459 Pa. 268, 328 A.2d 819 (1974) (plurality opinion).

Justice Pomeroy, in the opinion announcing the judgment in Borough of Greentree, rejected prior case law which suggested "that a court in equity must always entertain a constitutional attack on a tax statute," id. at 275, 328 A.2d at 823 (emphasis in original), and set out the following test to be applied to determine whether equity jurisdiction, to consider a constitutional attack on a statute, was appropriate when there exists a statutory remedy:

[T]he mere fact that a constitutional question is raised as to the validity of a statute does not, without more, vest jurisdiction in a court of equity to adjudicate. The additional element required to confer equitable jurisdiction is either the absence of a statutorily-prescribed remedy or, if such a remedy exists, then a showing of its inadequacy in the circumstances.

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 152]

    for Gaitens to show that the statutory remedy does not provide him a cause of action.


Our scope of review of the grant of a motion for summary judgment is limited to determining whether there has been an error of law or a manifest abuse of discretion. Miller v. Emelson, 103 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 437, 520 A.2d 913 (1987). The Borough contends that the trial court committed an error of law in determining that the tax levied by the ordinance constituted a head tax. Additionally, the Borough asserts that the tax does not violate the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. For the reasons which follow, we conclude that the trial court did not commit an error of law in determining that the ordinance imposed a head tax which violated the rate limitation of such a tax set by section 8 of the LTEA, and therefore, we will not address the constitutional challenge made by Gaitens.

The Borough contends that the tax in question is a flat rate levy on the exercise of the privilege of occupancy and is not a head tax. However, "the nature of a tax is to be determined by its substance and not by its label . . . [and] legislation imposing a tax must be strictly construed in favor of the taxpayer." Coney Island, II, Inc. v. Pottsville Area School District, 72 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 461, 468, 457 A.2d 580, 583 (1983) (emphasis in original). Section 2 of the LTEA, 53 P.S. § 6902, permits the Borough to tax "persons, transactions, occupations, privileges, subjects and personal property." Section 8 of the LTEA, 53 P.S. § 6908, contains limitations on the rate or amount of tax which may be imposed and specifically limits "per capita, poll or other similar head taxes" to $10.

The ordinance in question imposes a $25 annual tax "on the privilege of using or occupying premises within

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 154]

    the Borough . . . , to be paid by each person exercising such privilege." (Emphasis added.) Section II of the ordinance contains the following pertinent definitions:

C. OCCUPANT shall mean the person in actual possession of premises, whether as owner, lessee, sub-lessee, licensee or otherwise.

D. OCCUPIED PREMISES shall mean premises in use or occupancy. As respects residential premises occupancy shall mean actual residence therein for a period of at least 12 hours. As respects non-residential property use or occupancy shall mean actual presence of one or more human beings or goods or property therein or thereon for a period of at least 4 hours pursuant to some economic or business purpose. . . .

F. PERSON shall mean:

1. As respects occupancy for dwelling purposes, the head of the household or individual in responsible charge thereof.

2. As respects occupancy for non-residential purposes by natural persons, the individual owner or person in responsible charge of whatever activity is conducted upon or use made of the premises.

3. As respects occupancy by a corporation, the corporate entity.

4. As respects occupancy by an unincorporated association, the officers in responsible charge of whatever activity is conducted upon or use made of the premises.

The Borough relies on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Wanamaker v. Philadelphia School District, 441 Pa. 567, 274 A.2d 524 (1971), to support its contention that the ordinance imposes a valid tax on the privilege of occupancy. The tax upheld in Wanamaker was a tax on the use and occupancy of real estate for commercial or industrial purposes. The court held that

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 155]

    the tax was not a property tax but rather a tax on the privilege of using the property for business. If the tax in question here were levied only on the use and occupancy of premises for non-residential purposes, Wanamaker might support its validity. The tax, however, is also imposed on all persons who occupy premises in the Borough for residential purposes.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has defined a "head" tax as follows:

'Capitation or poll taxes are taxes of a fixed amount upon all persons, or upon all persons of a certain class, within the jurisdiction of the taxing power, without regard to the amount of their property or the occupations or business in which they may be engaged.' . . . The tax is imposed because of the protection which a governmental unit affords to persons residing therein, and is designed primarily to require contribution from all residents for the services rendered them by the taxing authority. Consequently, per capita, capitation or head taxes can be imposed only upon residents of the particular political subdivision since residence alone furnishes the contact necessary to render a person amenable to the direct levy.

Danyluk v. Bethlehem Steel Company, 406 Pa. 427, 430, 178 A.2d 609, 610 (1962) (citations omitted). We find it impossible to distinguish a general revenue tax imposed on persons solely because they choose to occupy residential premises in the Borough from a head tax, which by definition is imposed upon residents for the services rendered them by the municipality.

The Borough argues that the tax cannot be considered a true head tax because only the head of the household in each residence is responsible for paying the tax. However, this does not necessarily make the tax any less of a head tax. The general rules with respect to exemptions

[ 112 Pa. Commw. Page 156]

    from taxation also apply to head taxes. See Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937). In Borough of Rochester v. Geary, 30 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 493, 373 A.2d 1380 (1977), this court held that it was reasonable to exempt residents over the age of 62 with an annual income of less than $3200 from a $5 annual head tax. The ordinance imposing the tax at issue in Geary also exempted all individuals less than 18 years of age.

The ordinance at issue here contains no definition of head of the household. Black's Law Dictionary 648 (5th ed. 1979) defines the term as:

An individual who actually supports and maintains in one household one or more individuals who are closely connected with him by blood relationship, relationship by marriage, or by adoption, and whose right to exercise family control and provide for the dependent individuals is based upon some moral or legal obligation. (Citation omitted.)

Using this definition, the only individuals exempted from the tax are those dependent upon someone else for their support. We conclude that it is reasonable to exempt from taxation those persons for whom another is responsible.

Having determined that the tax in question, as applied to persons occupying residential premises, is a head tax, we are compelled to conclude that it is invalid because it violates the $10 limitation on head taxes mandated in section 8 of the LTEA, 53 P.S. § 6908. Accordingly, the order of the trial court is affirmed.


And Now, December 23, 1987, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the above captioned case is affirmed.

Judge Colins dissents.



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