Appealed From No. GD96-7312. Common Pleas Court of the County of Allegheny. Judge WETTICK.
Before: Honorable James Gardner Colins, President Judge, Honorable Bernard L. McGINLEY, Judge, (p.) Honorable Samuel L. Rodgers, Senior Judge. Opinion BY Senior Judge Rodgers.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rodgers
Larry Dunn (Dunn), a member of the Board of County Commissioners of Allegheny County (County Commissioners), appeals from orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) *fn1 granting the request for declaratory judgment filed by Wentworth Miller, Joy Miller, C. Dennis Pegden, Lisa Pegden, Patrick Curtis and Joan Curtis (Plaintiffs). For the reasons which follow, we must quash Dunn's appeal.
This action commenced when Plaintiffs, owners of residential property assessed at or near their fair market value (FMV) in Allegheny County (County), filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, alleging, inter alia, that the Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review of Allegheny County (Board of Assessment) has failed to maintain uniformity and to keep current with FMV in its assessments of other real property in the County. Plaintiffs asserted that this has resulted in widespread disparities in the assessment of comparable real properties in the County.
Plaintiffs' complaint also alleged that once they took office, the County Commissioners caused the Board of Assessment to cease performing reassessments by enacting a property assessment "freeze." *fn2 Plaintiffs argued that the freeze was unlawful and unconstitutional.
Finally, Plaintiffs averred that the County's assessment system violates Section 4 of the Second Class County Assessment Law *fn3 which places the responsibility for making and supervising all real property assessments in the hands of the Board of Assessment rather than the County Commissioners. For a number of years, assessments in the County have not been made, revised or equalized by the Board of Assessment; rather, the County's assessment system has been managed by the director of the Department of Assessment, Appeals and Review (Department). The director of the Department is chosen by the County Commissioners or another County official with no responsibility to the Board of Assessment. The director does not report to the Board of Assessment or look to it for guidance. The Board of Assessment's role has been limited to simply hearing appeals.
Plaintiffs requested that the trial court declare the present system illegal and asked that the trial court direct the Board of Assessment to supervise the operation of the assessment system rather than the Department.
The trial court held hearings on February 27, 1997, April 14, 1997, April 15, 1997 and May 15, 1997 at which Kerry A. Fraas, Esquire, County Solicitor, appeared as counsel for the County as well as Messrs. Dunn, Michael Dawida and Robert Cranmer as members of the County Commissioners. None of the County Commissioners were represented by other counsel and none sought to participate in the hearings as a separate party.
By orders dated April 18, 1997 and May 22, 1997, the trial court declared the policy and practice of freezing property tax assessments in the County to be unlawful and instructed the Board of Assessment to commence the revision and equalization of assessments according to a schedule set forth in the trial court's May 22, 1997 order. The trial court's April 18, 1997 order also declared the Board of Assessment to be an independent agency with the exclusive responsibility for staffing and operating the County's assessment program. Thereafter, on June 20, 1997, Dunn filed this appeal on his own behalf and as a member of the County Commissioners. Plaintiffs responded by filing a motion to quash, alleging that Dunn lacks standing to file the appeal. Plaintiffs subsequently filed a supplemental motion to quash after the trial court issued its July 9, 1997 opinion. *fn4 By order of this Court dated August 14, 1997, the motion to quash and the merits of the case were listed for argument.
In their motion to quash, Plaintiffs note that their complaint for declaratory judgment did not seek relief against any of the individual County Commissioners and stress that the trial court's orders similarly do not have any impact on the individual County Commissioners. Moreover, Plaintiffs argue, the County Commissioners were collectively represented by Mr. Fraas throughout the proceedings and, through him, the County Commissioners acquiesced in the trial court's orders regarding the revision and equalization of assessments. Lastly, Plaintiffs assert that even if Dunn had standing to bring this appeal, he has waived any arguments before this Court because he failed to file post-trial motions as required by Pa. R.C.P. No. 227.1.
In response, Dunn contends that because he was named individually in Plaintiffs' complaint, he has standing to bring the instant appeal. *fn5 Dunn's brief in opposition to the motion to quash states, "The fact that Plaintiffs sued Defendant Dunn in his official capacity as a member of the Board of Commissioners does not transform the Complaint into a cause of action against the Board of Commissioners, an entity." (Dunn's brief at page 7). Furthermore, Dunn argues that although he was represented by Mr. Fraas at ...