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Radhames v. Tax Review Board

April 22, 2010

FRANCISCO RADHAMES
v.
TAX REVIEW BOARD AND THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, APPELLANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Flaherty

Argued: February 8, 2010

BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Senior Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

The Tax Review Board (Board) and the City of Philadelphia (City) appeal three orders issued by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County that vacated two orders of the Board and vacated and remanded one other. We reverse the orders of the trial court and reinstate those of the Board.

The City's Department of Licenses and Inspection began inspecting the property located at 5966 Elsinore Street, Philadelphia, PA (Property). It was determined that there were multiple violations of the Philadelphia Code. The Department issued notices of violation to the then-owners of the Property, Robert and Frances Sommers (the Sommers). When the Sommers failed to make repairs on the Property within the stated time periods, the Department undertook the necessary abatement work to bring the Property in conformity with the Code. From 1998 through 2002, the City purportedly conducted significant abatement work on the Property. The alleged work included removing high weeds and rubbish, repairing and eventually replacing the roof, installing new windows and doors, demolishing and removing a collapsed rear bay, removing hazardous materials, and stuccoing and repairing the Property's walls. The City issued bills to the Sommers as work was completed.

The Sommers never made any payments towards the bill amounts. The City placed liens against the Property for unpaid costs associated with the abatement work. The Sommers never paid any money toward the liens.

In 2005, the Sommers sold the Property to Angelina Rodriguez and Ella Schuartsman. During their period of ownership, neither Ms. Rodriguez, nor Ms. Schuartsman paid any money toward the outstanding liens. In October of 2006, these individuals sold the Property to Radhames Francisco.*fn1 Prior to taking the Property, Mr. Radhames never conducted a title search in order to learn of the existence of seven municipal liens.

Mr. Radhames became aware of the City's liens in December of 2006. At that time, he filed several petitions for review with the Board appealing the bills/liens associated with Property. A hearing on Mr. Radhames' petitions was conducted by the Board on January 10, 2008. At the commencement of the hearing, the City acknowledged it improperly double billed one portion of the abatement. The improper bill noted "demolition" work was completed that was obviously in error as the Property was still standing. The City, without objection, requested that the Board grant Mr. Radhames' petition for review relating to that one matter. The City claimed the amounts due for the remaining liens, however.*fn2

The City then objected to moving forward on Mr. Radhames' remaining petitions based on a lack of jurisdiction because the bills were untimely appealed. The City asserted that any nunc pro tunc relief should be denied as it has been prejudiced by the untimely filing of the appeals. According to the City, many records have been purged due to its records retention policy.*fn3 The City also objected that Mr. Radhames lacked standing because he was not the owner of the property when the abatement work was done or when the bills were issued. In addition, the City argued that under the Municipal Claims and Tax Liens Act (MCTLA), once a lien is entered, that constitutes prima facie evidence of its validity.*fn4

The hearing proceeded without testimony. Counsel for Mr. Radhames asserted that the bills for the property in question were "utterly false to the point of them making an accusation that the building has been torn down." R.R. at 15a. Counsel contended that inasmuch as the City conceded the demolition bill was erroneous, the remaining bills were suspect as well. Counsel acknowledged his client did not have title insurance and did not have a lien search conducted. Counsel stated, however, that Claimant lived across the street for ten years prior to purchasing the Property and did not observe anything wrong with it. No testimony was taken.

The Board dismissed Mr. Radhames' six remaining petitions for review concluding it did not have jurisdiction to entertain them based on the untimeliness of the appeals. The Board found the City acted in accordance with its records retention policy when it disposed of many of the records it had on these matters. The Board further indicated that the lien process used by the City provided notice to any person who conducted a title search of the existence of the instant liens. It explained Mr. Radhames could have made an informed choice had he done a title search and perhaps struck a different deal with the seller.*fn5 Mr. Radhames appealed.

On March 31, 2009 the trial court entered orders denying Mr. Radhames' appeals on three bills; i.e., the one for work done on June 12, 1998 and the two for work done on March 10, 2000. The trial court granted Mr. Radhames' appeals regarding the assessments under Account 200393 for $31,501.05 and Account 0210220 for $30,205.65 and concluded that the Board erred in not vacating that assessment. These two liens were attributable to roof repair, stuccoing walls, and hazmat removal. The trial court also granted Mr. Radhames' appeal of Account 200204 for purported roof repair work done for $7,266.50. It remanded solely on this final matter for a full hearing so Mr. Radhames could present evidence as to his allegation that the roof repair work had not been performed.

In support of its rulings, the trial court determined that although the Philadelphia Code indicates a property owner must challenge an assessment within sixty days, nunc pro tunc relief was warranted in the instant matter. Preliminarily, the trial court indicated that neither Mr. Radhames, nor the previous owners, ever received notice of the assessments.*fn6 It indicated that this fact is bolstered by Mr. Radhames' contention that no work was ever performed.*fn7 The trial court further explained that nunc pro tunc relief can be granted when extraordinary circumstances are present. It determined that those circumstances were present.

The trial court vacated the assessments numbered 200393 and 210220 without further hearing because "there is the issue of two bills for roof repair work done within twelve days of each other: February 28, 2000 for $7,266.50 and April 12, 2000 for $31,501.05."*fn8 R.R. at 139a. The trial court added that a charge of $31,501.05 for either a repair or replacement of a roof for a sixteen foot-wide row home where the Property is located is egregious and clearly erroneous.*fn9 It indicated the City should have conceded this bill at the time of hearing as such a sizeable charge was either the result of fraud or an administrative breakdown. Utilizing its "equitable powers," it vacated this assessment. The trial court then stated because the work done on April 24, 2002 purportedly occurred on the same day that the demolition was said to ...


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