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In re Appeal of Coatesville Area School District

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

August 7, 2019

In Re: Appeal of the Coatesville Area School District From the Decision of the Chester County Board of Assessment Appeals for the Property Located at 50 South First Avenue, City of Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania Property Tax Parcel No. 16-05-0229.0000 Appeal of: Coatesville Area School District In Re: Appeal of the Coatesville Area School District from the Decision of The Chester County Board of Assessment Appeals for Property Located at 50 S. First Avenue, Coatesville, Chester County Pennsylvania Tax Parcel No. 16-05-00229.0000 Appeal of: Huston Properties, Inc.

          ARGUED: June 6, 2019

          BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge, HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Senior Judge

          OPINION

          BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, SENIOR JUDGE

         The instant charitable property tax exemption case returns to this Court on cross-appeal after remand to the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County (trial court) without an appeal in a companion case involving the same property (Property), property owner, and issues. The companion case is the subject of a decision and order essentially identical to the appealed decision and order. Because the trial court's decision and order in the companion case are final and now, because of the passage of time, un-appealable, we conclude that the preclusion doctrines of technical res judicata and collateral estoppel apply and thus that these appeals must be dismissed.

         The relevant factual and procedural history of this case prior to remand is set forth in an unpublished decision, In re: Appeal of City of Coatesville (Pa. Cmwlth., Nos. 511, 530, 607, and 608 C.D. 2016, filed February 16, 2017), slip op., and need not be set forth at length. Briefly, the case originated as an application for a real estate tax exemption by Huston Properties, Inc. (Huston), which claimed that the Property was regularly used as an institution of purely public charity. After hearing, the Chester County Board of Assessment (Board) granted a partial exemption of 72% for the 2014 tax year because 72% of the leasable space in Property was let to non-profits. Both the Coatesville Area School District (District) and the City of Coatesville (City) filed separately docketed appeals from the Board's decision. The District filed a notice of intervention in City's cross-appeal. [District's Notice of Intervention, In re: Appeal of the City of Coatesville, (C.P. Chester Pa., No. 2013-10761, filed Dec. 31, 2013); Reproduced Record "R.R." at 168a.][1] Huston responded with cross-appeals under the two docket numbers. Upon agreement of all parties made in open court at the call of the list, the trial court ordered that the dual cross-appeals from the Board be "consolidated for trial."[2] [Order, In re: Appeal of City of Coatesville, (C.P. Chester Pa., Nos. 2013-10761-AB and 2013-10936-AB, filed Jan. 26, 2015) (emphasis added); R.R. at 170a.][3] Both the City and District fully participated in the trial. Nevertheless, despite the common issues and the consolidation of the matters for hearing, the trial court did not consolidate the cases as a single case under a common docket number either prior to appeal or after remand. The trial court issued identical orders under the separate trial court docket numbers affirming the Board's decision.

         Upon review, this Court also consolidated the dual sets of cross-appeals between City and Huston and between District and Huston. [Order, In re: Appeal of the City of Coatesville (Pa. Cmwlth., Nos. 511, 530, 607, and 608 C.D. 2016, filed June 17, 2016).] The designated appellants, City and District, filed a joint brief. [Brief of Appellants, In re: Appeal of the City of Coatesville, (Pa. Cmwlth., Nos. 511, 530, 607, and 608 C.D. 2016, filed July 27, 2016).] We found that the trial court's initial findings of fact and conclusions of law were insufficient to resolve the issue of whether the Property was used as a "purely public charity" under relevant state constitutional and statutory provisions and case law. Thus, we remanded the cases to the trial court for further consideration.

         As stated above, after remand the trial court issued two essentially identical, but differently captioned, decisions and orders under the separate docket numbers. District appealed the decision and order in "its" case, that presently is before us, and Huston again cross-appealed. Neither City, nor District, nor Huston appealed the decision and order in the City's companion case.

         Before this Court, Huston filed an application to quash District's appeal because of the un-appealed trial court decision in the companion case. The Court, in denying quashal, noted as follows:

[Huston] bases its motion to quash on an argument concerning the asserted preclusive effect of an un-appealed companion case. Whether or not this argument has merit, it does not implicate the Court's jurisdiction to entertain appellant's appeal or appellant's right to appeal. Any such argument, rather, will have to be addressed to, and decided by the merits panel which ultimately hears this case.

[Order, In re: Appeal of the Coatesville Area Sch. Dist. (Pa. Cmwlth., 1130 C.D. 2018, filed Nov. 9, 2018).][4] Following argument, we now determine that the companion decision and order that were not appealed have preclusive effect and therefore we must dismiss these appeals.

         Res judicata, also referred to as claim preclusion, encompasses two related, yet distinct principles: technical res judicata and collateral estoppel. Henion v. Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd. (Firpo & Sons, Inc.), 776 A.2d 362, 365 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2001). Technical res judicata provides that where a final judgment on the merits exists, a future lawsuit on the same cause of action is precluded. Id. Collateral estoppel acts to foreclose litigation in a subsequent action where issues of law or fact were actually litigated and necessary to a previous final judgment. Id.

         Technical res judicata requires the coalescence of four factors: (1) identity of the thing sued upon or for; (2) identity of the causes of action; (3) identity of the persons or parties to the action; and (4) identity of the quality or capacity of the parties suing or being sued. Id. at 365-366. Technical res judicata applies to claims that were actually litigated as well as those matters that should have been litigated. Id. at 366. Generally, causes of action are identical when the subject matter and the ultimate issues are the same in both the old and new proceedings. Id.

         Similarly, collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, bars a subsequent lawsuit where (1) an issue decided in a prior action is identical to one presented in a later action; (2) the prior action resulted in a final judgment on the merits; (3) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted was a party to the prior action, or is in privity with a party to the prior action; and (4) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action. Rue v. K-Mart Corp., 713 A.2d 82, 84 (Pa. 1998).

         Between the appealed decision and order in the District's case and the un-appealed decision and order in the City's case, there is clearly identity of the thing sued upon, identity of the cause of action, and identity of the quality or capacity of the parties being sued. Moreover, as noted above, District intervened in the City's case and fully participated in the joint trial. Our Supreme Court has long held that in applying res judicata "[t]he thing which the court will consider is whether the ultimate and controlling issues have been decided in a prior proceeding in which the present parties actually had an opportunity to appear and assert their rights." Slater v. Slater, 94 A.2d 750, 751 (Pa. 1953) (emphasis added) [quoting Hochman v. Mortg.Fin. Corp. of Pa., 137 A. 252, 253 (Pa. 1927)]. While this case procedurally differs from Slater and Hochman, ...


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