Submitted: June 20, 2013
BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge
RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge
Rochelle Shipley and John Shipley appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County (trial court) that denied a Petition to Set Aside Judicial Tax Sale (Petition to Set Aside) of property located at 600 E. 9th Street, Chester, Pennsylvania (Property). The trial court held, in relevant part, that Mrs. Shipley, whose name did not appear on the Property's deed, did not have standing to challenge the judicial tax sale and that the Tax Claim Bureau of Delaware County (Bureau) satisfied the notice requirements of the Real Estate Tax Sale Law (Law). On appeal, Mrs. Shipley argues that the trial court erred in holding that: she lacked standing to file the Petition to Set Aside because she is an equitable owner of the Property; and the Bureau satisfied the Law's strict notice requirements where there is no evidence of the Sheriff of Delaware County's (Sheriff) return receipt for the Rule to Show Cause. For the following reasons, we reverse.
Mr. Shipley purchased the Property in 1980 or 1981 and only his name is on the deed. Mr. and Mrs. Shipley were married at the time of the purchase. Together they operated a seafood store and a mechanical garage on the Property. Mrs. Shipley would pay the real estate taxes on the Property. Mr. and Mrs. Shipley resided at a Wildel Avenue address in New Castle, Delaware from 1978 until October, 2011, when Mrs. Shipley moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 2011, Mr. Shipley lived at either the Wildel Avenue address or at a Hill Street address in Wilmington, Delaware until October 2011. Via certified mail dated March 9, 2010, the Bureau had a Rule to Show Cause sent to the Wildel Avenue address in New Castle, Delaware. The mail was returned to the Bureau as "Forwarding Time Expired, Moved Left No Address." (Trial Ct. Op. at 3.) Because the Bureau was notified that Mr. Shipley had filed for bankruptcy, the Bureau took no further action until July 26, 2011, when it sent Mr. Shipley, by certified mail to both the Wildel Avenue address and the Hill Street address, two letters indicating that it had been notified of the dismissal of Mr. Shipley's bankruptcy case and that the Property would be exposed to judicial sale on September 14, 2011. (Hr'g Tr. at 42, R.R. at 50.) The Hill Street letter was returned as "Return to Sender, No Such Number, Unable to Forward, " and the Wildel Avenue letter was marked as "Return to Sender, Not Deliverable as Addressed, Unable to Forward." (Trial Ct. Op. at 3.) The Bureau's Judicial Sale Coordinator (Coordinator) indicated that her office would search other property files for the same taxpayer to determine a useable address to try to notify property owners of upcoming tax sales. On December 14, 2011, the Bureau sold the Property to Guy Leroy (Purchaser) for $600 at a judicial tax sale, and Purchaser recorded his deed on January 4, 2012. (Trial Ct. Op. at 1-4.)
Mr. Shipley told Mrs. Shipley of the Property's sale in January 2012. On January 27, 2012, Mrs. Shipley filed the Petition to Set Aside, and Purchaser intervened. Mr. Shipley filed an Amended Petition to Set Aside (Amended Petition), joining Mrs. Shipley's challenge to the judicial tax sale on July 9, 2012, the date of the hearing before the trial court. At the hearing, Purchaser objected to Mrs. Shipley's standing and Mr. Shipley's filing of the Amended Petition and joining the matter as a party. Nevertheless, Purchaser agreed to allow the hearing to go forward with the addition of Mr. Shipley, but the trial court reserved its ruling on Purchaser's objections to Mrs. Shipley's standing and permitted Purchaser to argue against Mr. Shipley joining the matter. (Trial Ct. Op. at 1-2; Hr'g Tr. at 12, 16-19, R.R. at 20, 24-27.)
At the hearing, Mrs. Shipley acknowledged that her name was not on the deed and that she was not entitled to notice of the judicial sale. However, Mrs. Shipley's attorney asserted that Mrs. Shipley had a marital interest in the Property because it was purchased with joint funds and she had paid taxes on the Property, and that the Bureau did not properly serve Mr. Shipley with notice of the judicial tax sale under the Law. The trial court denied the Petition to Set Aside and explained in its opinion filed pursuant to Rule 1925(a) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure, Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a), that: (1) Mrs. Shipley did not have standing, but that the issue was moot because Mr. Shipley had been added to the Petition to Set Aside and they were asserting the same argument regarding notice; and (2) the Bureau's notices sent to Mr. Shipley at the two Delaware addresses via certified mail satisfied the notice requirements set forth in the Law. The trial court rejected the Shipleys' argument that the notice requirements of Section 602 of the Law, 72 P.S. § 5860.602, applied because Section 602 applied only to upset tax sales, not judicial tax sales. (Trial Ct. Op. at 4-6.) Mr. and Mrs. Shipley now appeal to this Court.
Mrs. Shipley first argues that she has standing to challenge the judicial tax sale because she has an equitable ownership interest in the Property and she is aggrieved by the sale of the Property at the judicial tax sale. Purchaser responds that, notwithstanding these factors, Mrs. Shipley is not an owner of the Property as defined by the Law and, accordingly, was not entitled to notice of the judicial tax sale and does not have standing to file the Petition to Set Aside.
Section 607 of the Law provides that objections or exceptions to a tax sale "may be filed by any owner or lien creditor." 72 P.S. § 5860.607; see also Plank v. Monroe County Tax Claim Bureau, 735 A.2d 178, 181 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1999) (only an owner or a lien creditor at the time of the sale may file objections or exceptions to a tax sale). Section 102 of the Law defines "owner" as
the person in whose name the property is last registered, if registered according to law, or, if not registered according to law, the person whose name last appears as an owner of record on any deed or instrument of conveyance recorded in the county office designated for recording and in all other cases means any person in open, peaceable and notorious possession of the property, as apparent owner or owners thereof, or the reputed owner or owners thereof, in the neighborhood of such property . . . .
72 P.S. § 5860.102.
"The traditional concept of standing focuses on the idea that a person who is not adversely impacted by the matter he seeks to challenge does not have standing to proceed with the court system's dispute resolution process." Pittsburgh Palisades Park, LLC v. Commonwealth, 585 Pa. 196, 203, 888 A.2d 655, 659 (2005) (citing William Penn Parking Garage v. City of Pittsburgh, 464 Pa. 168, 192, 346 A.2d 269, 280-81 (1975) (plurality)). In other words, a person must be aggrieved or have a legally sufficient interest in a matter to have standing. As stated by our Supreme Court:
an individual can demonstrate that he is aggrieved if he can establish that he has a substantial, direct, and immediate interest in the outcome of the litigation in order to be deemed to have standing. An interest is "substantial" if it is an interest in the resolution of the challenge which "surpasses the common interest of all citizens in procuring obedience to the law." Likewise, a "direct" interest mandates a showing that the matter complained of "caused harm to the party's interest, " i.e., a causal connection between the harm and the violation of ...