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In re Estate of Pancari

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

December 8, 2017

In Re: Estate of John F. Pancari, Sr., Deceased
v.
Scott Township Police Pension Fund Kathleen D. Gazda, Appellant

          Argued: April 4, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge[1] HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge.

          OPINION

          P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge.

         Kathleen Gazda (Gazda) appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Orphans' Court Division (Orphans' Court), dated June 30, 2016, which refused to order the Scott Township Police Pension Fund (Pension Fund) to pay benefits to Gazda as the widow of John F. Pancari, Sr. (Decedent). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the Orphans' Court's order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Decedent, a beneficiary of the Pension Fund, died on November 25, 2013. On May 9, 2014, Gazda filed for survivor's pension benefits with the Pension Fund, asserting that she was Decedent's common-law spouse. On May 27, 2014, the Pension Fund denied Gazda's application for survivor's benefits because Gazda lacked sufficient documents to prove a common-law marriage. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 180a-98a.)

         Following the appeal procedures set forth in the Scott Township Police Pension Plan (Plan), [2] (R.R. at 141a-42a), Gazda appealed to the Board of Commissioners of Scott Township (Board), and the Board assigned the matter to a hearing officer.[3] By decision dated September 26, 2014, the hearing officer found that Gazda failed to prove that a common-law marriage existed between Decedent and herself, and, therefore, she was not entitled to benefits as a surviving spouse. (R.R. at 299a-310a.) Gazda did not appeal this decision.

         On February 6, 2015, Gazda filed an estate inheritance tax return and paid the applicable inheritance tax using the zero percent spousal rate as Decedent's common-law spouse. In response, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (Revenue) issued a notice of assessment and applied the fifteen percent collateral rate. On September 9, 2015, Gazda filed a petition for citation, appealing the inheritance tax assessments with the Orphans' Court. On November 23, 2015, the Orphans' Court held a hearing and converted the petition for citation into a declaratory judgment action to determine whether a common-law marriage existed. After receiving evidence, the Orphans' Court issued an order deciding that a common-law marriage existed between Gazda and Decedent as of September 6, 1998.[4] Revenue did not appeal and thereafter revised its notice of assessment accordingly. (R.R. at 2a-6a.)

         On March 17, 2016, Gazda filed a second application for survivor's benefits with the Pension Fund, requesting benefits based on the November 23, 2015 Orphans' Court order. By letter dated April 15, 2016, the Pension Fund denied Gazda's application, concluding that all parties were bound by the hearing officer's September 26, 2014 decision, which no party appealed to the court of common pleas. (R.R. at 312a-15a.) Although the letter advised Gazda of her right under the Plan to appeal the determination to the Board for a full hearing, Gazda did not appeal the determination.

         Instead, two months later, on June 21, 2016, Gazda filed a motion to enforce order with the Orphans' Court, seeking to compel the Pension Fund to recognize her marriage to Decedent and pay her survivor's benefits. On June 30, 2016, following oral argument, the Orphans' Court denied Gazda relief. Gazda thereafter filed a timely appeal in this Court, and the Orphans' Court directed Gazda to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal. Gazda's concise statement raised a single issue-i.e., whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce its November 23, 2015 order, declaring Gazda to be Decedent's common-law spouse, against the Pension Fund. (R.R. at 8a-9a.) In an opinion issued pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(a), the Orphans' Court set forth its reasons for denying Gazda's motion to enforce. The Orphans' Court explained that under the Local Agency Law, 2 Pa. C.S. §§ 105, 551-55, 751-54, the Board's September 26, 2014 decision, by its designated hearing examiner, was an adjudication, triggering a right of appeal to the court of common pleas. Section 752 of the Local Agency Law, 2 Pa. C.S. § 752. The Orphans' Court noted that Section 8.08(f) of the Plan expressly defines the Board's decision as "final" and reiterates the right of a claimant for benefits to lodge an appeal under the Local Agency Law.

         The Orphans' Court observed that "Gazda simply did not follow the proper appeal procedure, " (R.R. at 5a), and it held that the hearing officer's adjudication was final on the issue of whether Gazda was entitled to benefits under the Plan. The Orphans' Court further held that Gazda's motion to enforce, filed nearly 21 months after the Board's final determination on Gazda's first claim for benefits and about two months after the Pension Fund denied her second claim for benefits, was not a substitute for a timely appeal under the Local Agency Law. The Orphans' Court concluded that it lacked the authority to reverse the Pension Plan's denial of benefits. Finally, the Orphans' Court noted that before it issued its declaratory judgment of a common-law marriage between Gazda and Decedent, Gazda's counsel should have notified the Court of the Board's final determination and should have notified the Pension Fund of the declaratory judgment action.

         In her brief on appeal, Gazda advances two questions for our review: (1) whether the Orphans' Court's declaratory judgment of a common-law marriage between Gazda and Decedent is binding on the Pension Fund; and (2) whether the existence of a common-law marriage is subject to the Local Agency Law. (Gazda Br. at 11.) As both of these issues are questions of law, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. Med. Shoppe, Ltd. v. Wayne Mem'l Hosp., 866 A.2d 455, 459 n.10 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005).

         II. DISCUSSION

         On appeal, Gazda argues that the authority to establish the validity of a common-law marriage "rests solely with the court of common pleas." (Gazda Br. at 18.) Gazda contends that once a court establishes the validity of a marriage, the marriage is finalized and is binding upon all persons concerned and, therefore, is subject to neither the Local Agency Law nor attack by third parties, such as the Pension Fund. In support, Gazda cites to Section 3306 of the Divorce Code, 23 Pa. C.S. § 3306, which provides:

When the validity of a marriage is denied or doubted, either or both of the parties to the marriage may bring an action for a declaratory judgment seeking a declaration of the validity or invalidity of the marriage and, upon proof of the validity or invalidity of the marriage, the marriage shall be declared valid or invalid by decree of the court and, unless reversed upon appeal, the declaration shall be conclusive upon all persons concerned.

         Gazda also relies on this Court's decision in Ross v. Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund of City of Pittsburgh, 871 A.2d 277, 280 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005) (finding that not every party who relies on existence of marriage between two persons must also be party to its declaration), appeal denied, 897 A.2d 462 (Pa.), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 816 (2006).

         Gazda also contends that allowing third parties to challenge the validity of a marriage would result in the possibility of numerous hearings before various agencies impacted by an individual's marital status. (Gazda Br. at 15.) Further, Gazda contends that the law does not grant a hearing officer jurisdiction over the establishment of a marriage, and that, as such, the hearing officer for the Board never had jurisdiction to determine whether Gazda and Decedent had a common-law marriage. Gazda argues that after she obtained her declaration of marriage, she became entitled to spousal benefits. More specifically, Gazda contends that the Pension Fund is contractually obligated to pay surviving spouse benefits and has no right to determine its beneficiaries' marital status.

         The Pension Fund rejects Gazda's premise that this case is about the question of whether the existence of a marriage is subject to the Local Agency Law. Rather, the Pension Fund contends that what is at issue in this case is the entitlement to benefits under a municipal police pension plan. Act 600 gives Scott Township the authority to establish and administer police pension plans, which includes benefits for surviving spouses. Section 1(a)(2) of Act 600, 53 P.S. §767(a)(2). The Pension Fund argues that under the authority of Act 600, a hearing officer is obligated to determine an applicant's marital status in order to determine entitlement to surviving spouse benefits under the terms of the Plan. Section 1(a)(2) of Act 600 provides:

Such fund shall be under the direction of the governing body of the borough, town, township or regional police department, and applied under such regulations as such governing body, by ordinance or resolution, may prescribe for the benefit of such members of the police force as shall receive honorable discharge therefrom by reason of age and service, or disability, and may prescribe for the benefit (i) of surviving spouses . . . .

         While Section 3306 of the Divorce Code provides that a "marriage shall be declared valid or invalid by decree of the court, " Act 600 provides Scott Township with the authority to establish and administer pension plans, which includes prescribing benefits for surviving spouses of members of the police force and determining eligibility for those benefits. This includes the authority to evaluate a party's marital status in order to determine if that party is eligible for benefits, as opposed to issuing a decree of marriage.

         The Pension Fund contends that under its Act 600 authority, it adopted the Plan, which sets forth express procedures for submitting a claim for benefits and challenging the Plan Administrator's initial denial of that claim. Under Article VIII of the Plan, (R.R. 141a-42a), an applicant who wishes to challenge the Plan Administrator's denial of a claim for benefits must appeal to the Board, the local agency here, within sixty days. The Board's decision "shall be final, conclusive and binding on all parties." (Section 8.08(c) of the Plan.) Section 8.08(e) of the Plan expressly provides that a claimant who does not submit to the Plan Administrator a timely claim for benefits or who does not file with the Board a timely appeal from the Plan Administrator's denial of a claim, "shall be deemed to have waived such claim or right to review." Section 8.08(f) of the Plan, however, expressly preserves a claimant's right to appeal an adverse Board adjudication under the Local Agency Law.

         Agreeing with the Orphans' Court, the Pension Fund contends that when Gazda chose not to further appeal the Board's September 26, 2014 adjudication to the court of common pleas, under both the Local Agency Law and the provisions of the Plan, the adjudication became final and binding on the parties. Cunningham v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth. (SEPTA), 914 A.2d 966, 972 n.12 (Pa. Cmwlth.) ("A party to a local agency proceeding may not institute an independent action that challenges the agency's action when the party failed to file a timely appeal from the decision of the local agency"), appeal denied, 932 A.2d 77 (Pa. 2007); Lundy v. City of Williamsport, 548 A.2d 1339, 1340 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1988) ("We have repeatedly held that failure to appeal a local governmental agency adjudication within 30 days from the date of the order complained of divests the trial court of jurisdiction").[5]

         In Lundy, Richard H. Lundy, Jr. (Lundy) applied to the local taxing authority to determine the amount of an exemption for improvements made to a building he purchased. Lundy, 548 A.2d at 1340. His application was denied and he appealed to the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) appeal board. Id. By decision dated April 26, 1985, the appeal board denied his application as untimely. Id. Two further appeals were also denied on January 14, 1986, and March 25, 1986. Id. On September 15, 1986, Lundy filed an equity action, seeking to compel the city to award him benefits on the grounds of equitable ...


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