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Lake Erie Promotions, Inc. v. Erie County Board of Assessment Appeals

IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


December 28, 2012

LAKE ERIE PROMOTIONS, INC.
v.
ERIE COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSMENT APPEALS
v.
WATTSBURG AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT AND GREENFIELD TOWNSHIP APPEAL OF: WATTSBURG AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT

The opinion of the court was delivered by: P. Kevin Brobson, Judge

Argued: November 16, 2012

BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge

HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge (P.) HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE BROBSON

Appellant Wattsburg Area School District (School District) appeals from two orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County (trial court). The first order, issued on March 8, 2012, sustained a prior order of the trial court, granting Lake Erie Promotions, Inc.'s (Taxpayer) Application for Determination of Tax Refunds and/or Tax Credits. The second order, issued on March 9, 2012, established the analysis the parties were to use in determining the amount of interest owed to Taxpayer with respect to the involved tax refunds.*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the trial court's March 8, 2012 order, vacate the trial court's March 9, 2012 order, and remand for further proceedings.

In 2005, Taxpayer filed with the trial court an appeal of a tax assessment of its property located in Greenfield Township.*fn2 (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 98a.) The trial court remanded the case to the Erie County Board of Assessment Appeals (Board), which conducted a hearing on December 8, 2010. (Id.) Thereafter, on February 22, 2011, the Board Chairman, Robert J. Tullio, issued a letter (Tullio Letter) to counsel for Taxpayer and the School District. (Id. at 98a, 115a.) The Tullio Letter indicated that the Board had reached a decision on the tax assessment appeal, explained the Board's findings and analysis, and specified new assessments for the years 2006 to 2011. (Id. at 9a-10a.) Believing the Tullio Letter to be a final decision of the Board, on March 17, 2011, the School District filed an appeal with the trial court. (Id. at 11a-16a.) The School District did not include the 2005 Docket Number on its appeal, and the trial court docketed the appeal at a new docket number (the 2011 Docket Number).*fn3 On May 2, 2011, the Board issued six Hearing Decision Notifications, containing the new assessment values as listed in the Tullio Letter. (Id. at 32a-37a.) The Hearing Decision Notifications also contained a mailing date, the property location, the parcel number, the old assessment values, and the effective date of the new assessments. (Id.) The Hearing Decision Notifications, however, did not include any findings or analysis by the Board. And, like the Tullio Letter, the Hearing Decision Notifications did not include any information about a right to appeal.

Throughout the pendency of the litigation, Taxpayer paid its taxes to all involved taxing bodies under protest pursuant to Section 8854(c) of the Consolidated County Assessment Law (Law), 53 Pa. C.S. § 8854(c).*fn4

(R.R.at 98a.) On May 3, 2011, Erie County, one of these taxing bodies, refunded the overpayment it received from Taxpayer based on the new assessments, but Greenfield Township and the School District held the overpayments they received from Taxpayer in escrow pursuant to Section 8854(c) of the Law. (Id.) Also on May 3, 2011, Taxpayer filed a notice of cross-appeal of assessment and reply to notice of assessment appeal at the 2011 Docket Number. (Id. at 17a-21a.) On December 9, 2011, Taxpayer filed an Application for Determination of Tax Refunds and/or Tax Credits in order to require Greenfield Township and the School District to remit payment of the refunds owed to Taxpayer. (Id. at 22a-50a.)

After the trial court held a hearing, the School District filed a motion to transfer its appeal from the 2011 Docket Number to the 2005 Docket Number, and Taxpayer filed a reply opposing the transfer. (Id. at 80a-97a.) During that hearing, the trial court and parties appeared to agree that the Tullio Letter was a final decision. The trial court, however, expressed concern as to whether it lacked jurisdiction because the School District's appeal was not filed at the 2005 Docket Number. On February 14, 2012, the trial court issued an order, wherein, upon further review, it concluded that the Hearing Decision Notifications constituted the final decision of the Board, not the Tullio Letter. (Id. at 98a-100a.) Thus, the trial court determined that the appeal filed by the School District on March 17, 2011, was premature and not a valid, timely appeal of the Board's May 2, 2011 decision. As a result, the trial court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Moreover, the trial court determined that because the School District had not appealed the Hearing Decision Notifications mailed by the Board on May 2, 2011, the Board's decision was final. (Id. at 100a.)

In the same order, the trial court refused to transfer the School District's appeal to the 2005 Docket Number. The trial court reasoned that even if it were to transfer the appeal to that docket number, the appeal would still be untimely and the trial court would still lack jurisdiction to hear the appeal. (Id.) The trial court then ordered the parties to provide the trial court with a stipulation regarding the pre-interest refund amount owed to Taxpayer. The trial court further ordered the parties to submit briefs regarding whether interest was due to Taxpayer and, if so, the interest rate to be utilized in calculating the amount of interest owed to Taxpayer. (Id.) The School District filed a motion for reconsideration of the trial court's February 14, 2012 order, which the trial court granted. (Id. at 101a-13a.)

On March 8, 2012, the trial court entered an order sustaining its February 14, 2012 order to grant Taxpayer's Application for Determination of Tax Refunds and/or Tax Credits. (Id. at 114a-16a.) The trial court reasoned that it has jurisdiction to hear appeals of final orders of administrative agencies (quasi-judicial orders) under Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure 341 and 1551, and that an appeal made of anything other than a final order is not valid, thereby depriving the trial court of jurisdiction. (Id. at 114a.) The trial court reiterated that the Tullio Letter was not the Board's final order, labeling it an "anomaly," because the Board does not regularly issue letters outlining its forthcoming decisions. (Id. at 114a-15a.) The trial court noted that the Board typically issues Hearing Decision Notifications once it reaches a decision on an appeal, and those notifications constitute the Board's final orders subject to appeal. (Id. at 115a.)

The trial court then stated that the Board must comply with some due process requirements in issuing its decision. (Id.) The trial court stated that Section 8854 of the Law, which addresses appeals from the Board's decision to the trial court, does not define what constitutes a "decision" of the Board. (Id.) Consequently, for purposes of guidance, the trial court looked to Section 8844(e)(2) of the Law,*fn5 which relates to appeals from the county assessment office to the Board. (Id.) In noting that Section 8844(e)(2) requires the Board to "give written notice of its decision to the appellant, property owner and affected taxing districts," the trial court observed that the Tullio Letter was not mailed to all the required parties; rather, it was mailed to counsel for Taxpayer and the School District only. (Id.) The trial court also observed that the Hearing Decision Notifications issued by the Board on May 2, 2011, were mailed to all parties. (Id.) Furthermore, the trial court took judicial notice that it was from those notifications that Erie County issued a refund to Taxpayer. (Id.) Thus, the trial court concluded that the Tullio Letter was not a final administrative order and that the School District was required to appeal the May 2, 2011 Hearing Decision Notifications, which it failed to do. (Id.) The trial court further concluded that the School District's appeal from the Tullio Letter was invalid for being untimely (i.e., too early). (Id.) Consequently, the trial court reasoned that, even if it were to transfer the appeal to the 2005 Docket Number, the appeal would remain invalid and the trial court would lack jurisdiction to hear it. (Id.)

On March 9, 2012, the trial court issued an order establishing the analysis the parties were to use in determining the interest owed to Taxpayer. (Certified Record (C.R.), Item No. 51.1.) The School District now appeals the March 8, 2012 order and the March 9, 2012 order (to the extent that the latter order constituted an entry of judgment).

On appeal to this Court,*fn6 the School District argues that the trial court erred in holding that the Tullio Letter was not the Board's final decision subject to appeal. Alternatively, the School District argues that the trial court erred in failing to conclude that the School District's appeal of the Tullio Letter constituted a valid appeal of the Hearing Decision Notifications. Finally, the School District argues that the trial court erred in refusing to transfer the School District's appeal from the 2011 Docket Number to the 2005 Docket Number.

We will address the School District's first two arguments together, as the essence of both is that the School District's appeal should be deemed valid. Notably, the Law contains no requirements regarding the content or format of a decision of the Board that would enable us to readily identify the decision as final and subject to appeal.*fn7

Nevertheless, the Local Agency Law*fn8 provides guidance in this regard. See 2 Pa. C.S. § 751(a)-(b) (providing, in part, that Subchapter B of Chapter 7, relating to judicial review of local agency action, applies to all local agencies and "to any adjudication which under any existing statute may be appealed to a court of record, but only to the extent not inconsistent with such statute"); see also In re Mackey, 687 A.2d 1186, 1192 n.16 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997) (applying Local Agency Law in tax assessment appeal with respect to class certification to extent that Local Agency Law was not inconsistent with Second Class A and Third Class County Assessment Law*fn9 when no other applicable provisions existed because "the Local Agency Law seem[ed] to be the only appropriate statute" to apply), appeal denied sub. nom, In re Class Action Appeal of Mackey, 548 Pa. 638, 694 A.2d 623 (1997). Under the Local Agency Law, an "adjudication" is defined as "[a]ny final order, decree, decision, determination or ruling by an agency affecting personal or property rights, privileges, immunities, duties, liabilities or obligations of any or all of the parties to the proceeding in which the adjudication is made."*fn10 2 Pa. C.S. § 101. Moreover, "[a] letter from an agency may qualify as an adjudication so long as the letter" meets the definition of "adjudication." Wortman v. Philadelphia Comm'n on Human Relations, 591 A.2d 331, 333 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1991).

After conducting a thorough review of the Tullio Letter and the set of Hearing Decision Notifications, we conclude that both contain characteristics of finality, such that we are unable to determine which truly constitutes the final decision of the Board. The Tullio Letter indicated that "[t]he Board . . . ha[d] reached a decision" regarding the appeal, and it provided findings of fact and an analysis of the parties' respective appraisals. (R.R. at 14a.) Furthermore, the Tullio Letter established the property's assessable value and set forth the Board's revised tax assessments of the property for the years 2006 to 2011. (Id. at 9a-10a.) The Tullio Letter, however, ambiguously concluded by providing that the Board trusted that the information in the Tullio Letter was satisfactory for the recipients' "present purposes."*fn11 (Id. at 10a.) Also, the trial court characterized the Tullio Letter as an "anomaly," as the Board does not regularly issue letters outlining its decisions. (Id. at 115a.) Rather, the Board customarily issues Hearing Decision Notifications when rendering final decisions on tax assessment appeals. (Id.) Here, the Hearing Decision Notifications did not contain any findings or analysis. (Id. at 32a-37a.) Each Hearing Decision Notification, however, contained information that was omitted from the Tullio Letter, such as a mailing date, the property location, the parcel number, the old assessment values, and the effective date of the new assessments. (Id.) In sum, the Tullio Letter and the set of Hearing Decision Notifications both provided the outcome of the tax assessment appeal, and both affected Taxpayer's property rights and tax obligations, but neither included sufficient indicia of finality to enable us to identify definitively one as the final decision of the Board over the other.

In light of the discussion above, we conclude that the School District's appeal is valid. First, the School District should not be deprived of its right to appeal as the result of the confusion caused by the Board's actions in communicating its decision on the tax assessment appeal. Although an agency is not required to include language explicitly stating that a communication is the final decision of the agency, under the circumstances of this case, the Board had a burden to clearly indicate which communication it intended to be its final decision.*fn12 We cannot ignore the likely possibility that had the School District assumed that the Board would send the Hearing Decision Notifications and waited to appeal from those notifications, Taxpayer may have argued that the Tullio Letter constituted the Board's final decision and that the School District's appeal was too late. Second, the law favors allowing a party to proceed with its appeal in comparable situations. See H.D. v. Dep't of Pub. Welfare, 751 A.2d 1216, 1219 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000) (providing that appeal nunc pro tunc is permitted when there is delay in filing of appeal caused by breakdown in administrative process and when "the appeal was filed within a short time after [the appellant] learn[s] of and ha[s] an opportunity to address the untimeliness; . . . the elapsed time period is of very short duration; and . . . the appellee will not be prejudiced by the delay"); Pa. R.A.P. 905(a)(5)*fn13 ("A notice of appeal filed after the announcement of a determination but before the entry of an appealable order shall be treated as filed after such entry and on the day thereof."). Thus, although it would have been prudent for the School District to file an appeal from the Hearing Decision Notifications in addition to filing an appeal from the Tullio Letter, we refuse to deny the School District its right to appeal, as the School District reasonably believed that the Tullio Letter constituted the final decision of the Board and promptly filed an appeal accordingly. The trial court, therefore, erred in concluding that the School District's appeal from the Tullio Letter was invalid.

We next address the School District's argument that the trial court erred in refusing to transfer the School District's appeal to the 2005 Docket Number. The School District argues that the transfer of a case is required with respect to similar situations, such as when an appeal or other matter is filed in the wrong court or wrong division of a court. See 42 Pa. C.S. § 5103(a), (c). The School District, therefore, argues that transferring its appeal to the 2005 Docket Number is also proper here, where the appeal was filed before the same court under a new docket number simply because of a clerical error.

This Court does not necessarily agree that the appeal of the Tullio Letter was filed at the "wrong" docket number.*fn14 Nevertheless, even if we were to conclude that the School District incorrectly filed its appeal at the 2011 Docket Number, the trial court should have consolidated*fn15 the matters for consideration of the appeal on the merits. The parties have not cited, and we are unaware of, any rule that prevents the trial court from consolidating the matters under these circumstances. On the contrary, provisions in the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Judicial Code clearly express an aversion to our courts dismissing cases based on technicalities with respect to filing errors. See Pa. R.C.P. No. 126 ("The rules shall be liberally construed to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action or proceeding to which they are applicable. The court at every stage of any such action or proceeding may disregard any error or defect of procedure which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties."); Pa. R.C.P. No. 213(a) ("In actions pending in a county which involve a common question of law or fact or which arise from the same transaction or occurrence, the court on its own motion or on the motion of any party . . . may order the actions consolidated . . . ."); 42 Pa. C.S. § 708(a) ("No objection to a governmental determination shall be defeated by reason of error in the form of the objection or the office of clerk of court in which the objection is filed."); 42 Pa. C.S. § 5103(a), (c). In spite of the School District's supposed clerical error, the School District's appeal promptly came before the trial court (as determined above). Thus, the trial court abused its discretion in failing to consider the merits of the School District's appeal.

Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's March 8, 2012 order, and we vacate the trial court's March 9, 2012 order, which was predicated on the March 8, 2012 order. We remand this case with instructions that the trial court either proceed with consideration of the School District's appeal on the merits at the 2011 Docket Number or, alternatively, consolidate the appeal filed at the 2011 Docket Number with the matter filed at the 2005 Docket Number for consideration of the appeal on the merits.

IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Lake Erie Promotions, Inc. : : v. : : Erie County Board of : Assessment Appeals : : v. : Wattsburg Area School District : and Greenfield Township : : Appeal of: Wattsburg Area : School District :

No. 588 C.D. 2012 :

ORDER

AND NOW, this 28th day of December, 2012, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County (trial court), dated March 8, 2012, is REVERSED and the trial court's order dated March 9, 2012, is hereby VACATED. It is further ordered that the matter is REMANDED with instructions that the trial court either proceed with consideration of Wattsburg Area School District's appeal on the merits at the 2011 Docket Number or, alternatively, consolidate the appeal filed at the 2011 Docket Number with the matter filed at the 2005 Docket Number for consideration of the appeal on the merits.

Jurisdiction relinquished.

P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge


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