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Martinez v. Tax Claim Bureau

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 17, 2019

TAX CLAIMS BUREAU, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court by way of a Complaint, lodged by Plaintiff Gilbert M. Martinez, proceeding pro se. Also before the Court are Martinez's Motion to Proceed In Forma Pauperis and his ex parte Motion for an Order to Show Cause. Because it appears that Martinez is unable to afford to pay the filing fee, the Court will grant him leave to proceed in forma pauperis. For the following reasons, the Complaint will be dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         I. FACTS [1]

         Martinez is the owner of real property located at 1706 Cotton Street in Reading, Pennsylvania. (ECF No. 1 at 28, 36.)[2] Martinez alleges that on August 20, 2019, he received a Notice of Public Tax Sale from the Berks County Tax Claim Bureau informing him that his property is going to be “sold on September 20, 2019 without [his] consent for delinquent taxes.” (ECF No. 1 at 8, 36.) Martinez lodged the Complaint in this action on September 6, 2019 seeking, among other relief, an injunction permanently staying the upcoming tax sale.[3] (ECF No. 1 at 18.) In the Complaint, Martinez named the following individuals and entities as Defendants in this case: (1) Tax Claims Bureau (hereinafter, “the Bureau”);[4] (2) Director Stacy Phile, [5] in her individual and official capacity; (2) Treasurer Dennis Adams, in his individual and official capacity; (3) the Berks County Assessment Office; and (4) the Berks County Department of Human Services. Martinez purports to bring this action pursuant to the following: (1) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e; (2) 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983; (3) Article VIII, Section 2(b)(ii) of the Pennsylvania Constitution; (4) 72 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7304; (5) 72 Pa. Cons. Stat § 4751-102; (6) 18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 242; (7) the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution; (8) the Local Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, 53 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8430, 8431, 8434; and (9) the Public Welfare Code Omnibus Amendments Act of June 30, 2012, P.L. 668, No. 80, §§ 403.2, 432.3, 442.1. (ECF No. 1 at 1.)

         As the Complaint makes clear, the Notice of Public Tax Sale Martinez received on August 20, 2019 was not the first instance where the parties crossed paths with respect to delinquent property taxes owed by Martinez. Martinez alleges that several years ago he encountered a number of financial difficulties all of which were caused by “governmental wrongdoings” and “governmental actions defrauding” him, thus leaving him without “SSI benefits, Welfare benefits and suppressing [his] employment rights[.]” (ECF No. 1 at 2, 27-29.) Martinez asserts that as a result of governmental action and fraud regarding his benefits and ability to work, he is “poverty stricken and unable to pay [his] property taxes[.]” (ECF No. 1 at 27.) After falling behind on his property taxes, Martinez alleges that in approximately November of 2015 he contacted the Bureau seeking a tax exemption for individuals who are disabled or impoverished. (ECF No. 1 at 2.) According to Martinez, Defendant Director Stacy Phile informed him that no such exemption existed and the only exemption available was for senior citizens. (ECF No. 1 at 2-3.) Martinez contends that Phile “was being deceptive in her dealings” with him, that she mispresented the tax laws and “forced [him] into the hardship program” for payment of the taxes, and that she deprived him of the tax exemption he alleges is set forth in Article VIII, § 2(b)(ii) of the Pennsylvania Constitution.[6] (ECF No. 1 at 3.)

         It appears that after this encounter in 2015, Martinez's inability to pay his property taxes continued which ultimately caused the Bureau to send Martinez an initial notice, on or about March 23, 2018, informing him that a failure to pay the claim or take legal action to challenge the delinquent taxes would result in the property being sold without his consent. (ECF No. 1 at 5.) Upon receipt of this March 23, 2018 notice, Martinez filed an application with the Bureau requesting a tax refund, a tax exemption, and tax forgiveness for fiscal years 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. (ECF No. 1 at 4.) Martinez alleges that Defendant Treasurer Dennis Adams denied this application on or about March 28, 2018 “without setting forth any law to support his … decision.” (ECF No. 1 at 4.) Soon after this denial, Martinez learned that Defendant Berks County Assessment Office, and not the Treasurer or the Bureau, is the “proper tax agency to render a decision for tax exemption, ” (ECF No. 1 at 30), prompting Martinez to submit an application for a tax exemption with that Office on or about April 6, 2018 via email.[7] (ECF No. 1 at 6, 30-31.) Martinez asserts, however, that representatives of the Berks County Assessment Office lied to him when he called to inquire about his application, stating it had not been received. (ECF No. 1 at 6, 30.) At that time, Martinez learned that his application required payment of a $100 fee which he claims the Berks County Assessment Office refused to waive despite his economic hardship and refused to write a denial letter setting forth the reasons for rejecting his application. (ECF No. 1 at 6, 30.)

         Several months later, on or about August 21, 2018, Martinez filed a civil action in the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County, Pennsylvania, (hereinafter, “the Common Pleas Action”), seeking a tax refund, a declaration of his tax exemption, and a stay of the initially noticed public tax sale. (ECF No. 1 at 6.) The Common Pleas Action, Martinez v. Tax Claims Bureau, et al., (Docket No. 18-3619), was assigned to the Honorable Jeffrey K. Sprecher. (ECF No. 1 at 7.) At the time he submitted the Complaint in the present matter, Martinez attached as an Exhibit an Opinion entered by Judge Sprecher in the Common Pleas Action dated February 5, 2019. (ECF No. 1 at 39-47.) Judge Sprecher's Opinion denied Martinez's appeal of two prior Orders by the Judge dated November 1, 2018, which denied Martinez's motion for recusal by the Judge and sustained Defendant's preliminary objections, respectively. (ECF No. 1 at 39.) In addition to the Opinion and Orders by Judge Sprecher, Martinez also attached to his Complaint in present matter, a copy of a per curiam Memorandum Opinion and Order filed by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on August 13, 2019, affirming Judge Sprecher's findings on appeal. (ECF No. 1 at 48-63.) The Common Pleas Action named the following Defendants: (1) the Tax Claims Bureau; (2) Director Stacy Phile; (3) Treasurer Dennis Adams; and (4) the Berks County Assessment Office. (ECF No. 1 at 39, 48.)

         In light of the Commonwealth Court's August 13, 2019 Memorandum Opinion and Order which found against Martinez on all claims, it appears that the Bureau sent Martinez an updated Notice of Public Tax Sale setting the upcoming September 20, 2019 deadline for the sale of Martinez's property for delinquent taxes.[8] (ECF No. 1 at 8, 36.) Martinez subsequently filed the Complaint in this matter seeking to prevent the forthcoming public tax sale of his property. He also filed an ex parte Motion for an Order to Show Cause.[9]

         In addition to the facts relating to Martinez's taxes and the public tax sale of his property, Martinez also seeks to bring a claim against the Berks County Department of Human Services (more properly identified as the Berks County Assistance Office) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his right to due process with respect to the alleged termination of his cash assistance benefits.[10] (ECF No. 1 at 14-15.) Martinez specifically refers to a letter he received on July 3, 2019 informing him that his cash assistance benefits would be terminated due to a recent change in state law. (ECF No. 1 at 14.) This appears to be the only basis for his claims against the Berks County Department of Human Services.


         The Court will grant Martinez leave to proceed in forma pauperis because it appears that he is incapable of paying the fees to commence this civil action. Accordingly, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) requires the Court to dismiss the Complaint if, among other things, it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim. A complaint is subject to dismissal under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) as frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact, ” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), and is legally baseless if it is “based on an indisputably meritless legal theory.” Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995). A claim is malicious when it is duplicative or repetitious of prior litigation by the same plaintiff. Lockhart v. Oakland Police Dep't, Civ. A. No. 10-5483, 2010 WL 5387500, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 22, 2010) (“Duplicative or repetitious litigation of virtually identical causes of action is subject to dismissal under 28 U.S.C. 1915 as malicious.”) (citing Bailey v. Johnson, 846 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1988)); McWilliams v. State of Colo., 121 F.3d 573, 574 (10th Cir. 1997) (same); Abdul-Akbar v. Dep't of Corr., 910 F.Supp. 986, 999 (D. Del. 1995) (“a district court may dismiss a complaint as malicious if it is plainly abusive of the judicial process or merely repeats pending or previously litigated claims”).

         Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), see Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999), which requires the Court to determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). Conclusory allegations and generalized statements do not suffice to state a claim. See Id. The Court may dismiss claims based on an affirmative defense if the affirmative defense is obvious from the face of the complaint. See Fogle v. Pierson, 435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006); cf. Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 459 (3d Cir. 2013), abrogated on other grounds by, Coleman v. Tollefson, 135 S.Ct. 1759, 1763 (2015). Because Martinez is proceeding pro se, the Court must construe his allegations liberally. Higgs v. Att' y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011).


         A. ...

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