At the oral argument on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, it was agreed that we should at this time only resolve the declaratory aspects of this class action. The resolution of issues of monetary or injunctive relief will be deferred until the declarations have become final.
Defendants have asserted a number of procedural defenses. Although we believe these defenses are without merit,
one defense deserves more than passing consideration before we turn to the merits of Rivkin's case.
A. Does the Eleventh Amendment Bar this Action Against the Prothonotary?
Defendants have asserted that the Eleventh Amendment precludes Rivkin's action against the Prothonotary. This argument claims that since Pennsylvania has a Unified Judicial System, 17 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 61 et seq., an action against the Prothonotary is tantamount to an action against the Commonwealth that is forbidden under the Eleventh Amendment.
We find this argument unpersuasive.
In its recent canvass of Supreme Court and Circuit jurisprudence under the Eleventh Amendment, our Court of Appeals stated that the "most important" factor in determining whether an agency is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity is "whether any judgment would be paid from the state treasury." Bolden v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 953 F.2d 807, 818 (3d Cir. 1991) (in banc), cert. denied U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 2281, 119 L. Ed. 2d 206 (1992), quoting Fitchik v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 873 F.2d 655, 659 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 850, 107 L. Ed. 2d 107, 110 S. Ct. 148 (1989). The treasury of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is at no risk in this case. As noted earlier, it is undisputed that the Prothonotary has regularly collected the subject interest and remitted it to the Treasurer of Montgomery County. Thus, if the class is entitled to monetary relief, the funds will be paid either by the Prothonotary, or, more likely, from the treasury of Montgomery County. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will have nothing at all to do with the relief sought in this case.
Bolden and Fitchik also require us to look at the agency's "status under state law" and "autonomy" in resolving Eleventh Amendment immunity questions. See 953 F.2d at 816 and 873 F.2d at 659.
With respect to the Prothonotary's "status under state law", while, to be sure, he is subject to general rules of practice and procedure that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may, from time to time, impose, the defendants have cited no such rule as the basis for what the Prothonotary has done with the interest earned on interpleaded funds. Against this general "status under state law", we take note of the specific legal reality that the Prothonotary is elected solely by the electors of Montgomery County, 16 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 401(a)(7). There is nothing we perceive in the Pennsylvania statutory scheme to outweigh the exclusively local financial interest found above.
With respect to the Montgomery County Prothonotary's "autonomy", as far as the challenged conduct here is concerned, there is no suggestion that he acted other than on his own, together with other Montgomery County officials. The questioned arrangement that has existed at least since 1984 is, according to the Prothonotary himself, one made between him and the county treasurer, and not pursuant to a formal, statewide rule of court. See deposition of William E. Donnelly taken on March 30, 1993, at 24-29.
Thus, given the relief sought and the facts of this case, we hold that the Prothonotary is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.
B. Is the Prothonotary's Practice Lawful?
In a case strikingly similar to this one, the Supreme Court of the United States in 1980 held that the state of Florida could not, conformably with the Taking Clause of the Fifth Amendment (as applied by the Fourteenth Amendment), appropriate the interest earned on interpleaded funds deposited into court in addition to a poundage fee deducted "for services rendered" for "receiving money into the registry of court." Webb's Fabulous Pharmacies, Inc. v. Beckwith, 449 U.S. 155, 158, 101 S. Ct. 446, 449, 66 L. Ed. 2d 358 (1980).
In Webb's Fabulous, the Eckerd's drug store chain agreed to buy the assets of Webb's Fabulous Pharmacies, Inc. Because Webb's debts to almost two hundred creditors appeared to exceed the purchase price, Eckerd's filed an interpleader complaint against the creditors and paid the $ 1,812,145.77 consideration into court. The Clerk of the Seminole County, Florida, Circuit Court exacted two charges against the res, pursuant to two separate Florida statutes. The first was a $ 9,228.74 poundage fee calculated in accordance with a statutory formula.
The second charge resulted after the Florida court on its own motion appointed a receiver for Webb's. Ultimately, the receiver moved the court to pay him the over $ 100,000 in interest that had accumulated on the res. The Supreme Court of Florida held that the Clerk of the Seminole County Circuit Court, and not the receiver, was entitled to the interest pursuant to a second Florida statute that provided, in part, that "all interest accruing from moneys deposited [into the court's registry] shall be deemed income of the office of the clerk of the circuit court . . . ." Fla.Stat. § 28.33 (1977), quoted at 449 U.S. at 156 n.1, 101 S. Ct. at 448 n.1.
The question in Webb's Fabulous was "whether the second exaction by Seminole County amounted to a 'taking' -- it was obviously uncompensated -- within the [Fifth] Amendment's prescription." Id., 449 U.S. at 160, 101 S. Ct. at 450. The Supreme Court unanimously held it was. Justice Blackmun wrote for the Court that:
The earnings of a fund are incidents of ownership of the fund itself and are property just as the fund itself is property. The state statute has the practical effect of appropriating for the county the value of the use of the fund for the period in which it is held in the registry.