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In re Upset Tax Sale of September 29

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 8, 2017

In Re: Upset Tax Sale of September 29, 2014
v.
Lackawanna County Tax Claim Bureau and George Robles Michael Grudsky, Appellant

          Argued: April 20, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge

          OPINION

          MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge

         Michael Grudsky appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County (trial court) denying his petition to set aside a tax sale of property he owned. Grudsky contends that the Lackawanna County Tax Claim Bureau (Tax Claim Bureau) did not comply with the notice requirements of the Real Estate Tax Sale Law (Tax Sale Law)[1] and, thus, the trial court erred. We agree and reverse.

         On August 11, 1985, Bella Grudsky purchased "Campsite Lot(s) No. 111" in Eagle Lake, Covington Township, Lackawanna County, for $16, 490, and placed her son, Michael Grudsky, on the deed as joint owner. Reproduced Record at 22a (R.R.__). In 1998, Grudsky became the sole owner of the property when his mother died. On September 29, 2014, the property was sold at an upset tax sale to George Robles for $1, 377.04. On July 20, 2015, Grudsky filed a petition to set aside the upset tax sale, and the trial court conducted a hearing thereon.

         At the hearing, Ronald Koldjeski, Deputy Director of the Tax Claim Bureau, testified about the procedures it followed in this upset tax sale, prompted by the unpaid taxes for 2012 and 2013.[2] The Tax Claim Bureau sent, by certified mail, a notice of the tax sale to 3089 Brighton 6th Street, Apartment 2, Brooklyn, New York, 11235-6966, but it was returned by the postal service as unclaimed. Koldjeski then did a search of records in the County, including those of "the Assessor, the Prothonotary, and Recorder of Deeds." Notes of Testimony at 18 (N.T. __); R.R. 47a. They showed the same address. Last, he checked

         Pennsylvania voter registration records, but they did not list Grudsky. Because Koldjeski did not find an alternate address, the Tax Claim Bureau sent a second notice to Grudsky at the same Brooklyn address by regular mail; it was not returned by the U.S. Postal Service.

         On cross-examination, Koldjeski acknowledged that he did not check the Lackawanna County telephone directory for another address for Grudsky. Koldjeski explained that "[he] didn't think there was a need" because he did not find that Grudsky was registered to vote "anywhere in the Commonwealth." N.T. 17; R.R. 46. Also on cross-examination, Koldjeski stated that he documented his search efforts with handwritten notes in the file, albeit without dates. Those notes did not appear in the file made available to the public.

         The purchaser, Robles, next testified. He explained that after purchasing the property at the upset sale, he petitioned the trial court for title to a trailer on the property. The trial court scheduled a hearing for May 20, 2015, and notice was sent to Grudsky at the same address used by the Tax Claim Bureau. Grudsky did not appear at the hearing, and the trial court awarded Robles title to the trailer, which he has repaired.

         Mercedes Salazar, Robles' wife, also testified. She stated that the couple has been paying the delinquent school taxes owed on the property with a payment plan, and they have paid all of the Lackawanna County property taxes. They also entered into an installment agreement with Eagle Lake to pay the delinquent homeowners' association dues.

         Finally, Grudsky testified. He established that his address is 215 Amherst Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11235. The Brighton 6th Street address used by the Tax Claim Bureau was his parents' address, both of whom are deceased. Grudsky has not lived there since childhood. Grudsky explained that ten years ago the building was refurbished to add apartments. Accordingly, the mailing addresses changed to "Second floor, 2-F and 2-B." N.T. 49; R.R. 78a. Grudsky and his wife own the building.

         Grudsky testified that he did not learn about the sale until 2015. His wife informed him

that there was a letter that they got, like, five days prior to the, what do you call it, to the Court. Not five days, like three days or something. I don't recall which. We couldn't be there or something like that. I don't remember. We received some kind of letter that it was sold already and we were to come to court, but we couldn't come in time.

N.T. 51; R.R. 80a. Grudsky was not sure if the letter was in reference to the property or the trailer.

         Grudsky stated that he purchased the trailer in 2009 or 2010 and that it was in good condition. It was definitely not in need of significant repairs. He and his family last visited the property in the summer of 2014 and "use[d] the trailer[.]" N.T. 55; R.R. 84a. At the end of the summer, they winterized the trailer.

         The trial court found that 3089 Brighton 6th Street, Brooklyn, New York was Grudsky's proper mailing address. It based this finding on a comment made by Grudsky in the course of examination by his counsel:

[Counsel] Residence address, please.
[Grudsky] 215 Amherst Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11235.
[Counsel] What address is the 3089 Brighton 6th Street ...

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