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Stedman v. Lancaster County Board of Commissioners

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

November 20, 2019

Craig Stedman, in his Official Capacity as Lancaster County District Attorney, Petitioner
v.
Lancaster County Board of Commissioners; Joshua Parsons, in his Official Capacity as Chairman of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners; Dennis Stuckey, in his Official Capacity as Vice-Chairman of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners; Craig Lehman, in his Official Capacity as Lancaster County Commissioner, Respondents Joshua Shapiro, in his Official Capacity as Pennsylvania Attorney General; and Brian Hurter, in his Official Capacity as Lancaster County Controller, Non-adverse Respondents

          Argued: September 11, 2019

          BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge, HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge, HONORABLE ELLEN CEISLER, Judge.

          OPINION

          PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, JUDGE.

         In our original jurisdiction, Craig Stedman, in his official capacity as the District Attorney of Lancaster County (Stedman), filed a petition for review (PFR) on March 13, 2019, and later an amended PFR on April 8, 2019, in the nature of a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. In the PFR, Stedman named as respondents the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners (County Commissioners), and Joshua Parsons (Parsons), Dennis Stuckey (Stuckey), and Craig Lehman (Lehman), in their official capacities as Chairman of the Board, Vice-Chairman of the Board, and Commissioner, respectively, (collectively, the Commissioners).[1] Stedman also named as respondents Joshua Shapiro and Brian Hurter, in their official capacities as the Attorney General of Pennsylvania (Attorney General) and the Controller of Lancaster County (Controller), respectively. With respect to the Attorney General and Controller, Stedman originally named them as "Nominal/Non-adverse" respondents and then, in the amended PFR, as "Indispensable/Non-adverse" respondents.

         The Commissioners have filed preliminary objections, asserting that we lack subject matter jurisdiction over the claims raised by Stedman; that Stedman has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; and/or that his claims present a non-justiciable controversy. The dispositive issue is whether the Attorney General is an indispensable party to this matter and thus, whether we possess original subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the suit and claims filed by Stedman. We conclude that we lack subject matter jurisdiction.

         I. Background

         Broadly speaking, Stedman's amended PFR, filed on April 8, 2019, alleges that the Commissioners and its individual members are attempting to inhibit his use of funds exclusively committed to his control; interfere with his rights to control human resource matters within his office; and threaten, "intimidate," and "silence him" in order to prevent him from challenging the Commissioners' power and authority. (PFR ¶¶1-4.)

         In general, Stedman's claims involve his authority under current section 5803 of what is commonly referred to as the Forfeiture Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §5803.[2], [3] Quoting section 5803(g) of the Forfeiture Act, Stedman avers that "cash or proceeds of property subject to forfeiture under the law are now 'transferred to the custody of the district attorney' and 'shall be placed in the operating fund of the county in which the district attorney is elected, '" in accordance with section 5803(g) of the Forfeiture Act. (PFR ¶19) (quoting 42 Pa.C.S. §5803(g)). Stedman further alleges that, in accordance with section 5803(g) of the Forfeiture Act, "the appropriate county authority" should release without restriction an amount for his use as District Attorney "for enforcement of or prevention of the provisions of The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.[4]" (PFR ¶20) (quoting 42 Pa.C.S. §5803(g)). Stedman alleges that he has sole control over the funds obtained through forfeiture subject to two layers of oversight as mandated by the Forfeiture Act. (PFR ¶24.) According to Stedman, the first is that Hurter, the Controller, must perform an annual audit of all property and proceeds obtained and used by him as the District Attorney as required by section 5803(j) of the Forfeiture Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §5803(j). (PFR ¶25.) The second, and more important layer of oversight for our purposes, is the alleged role and extent of involvement of the Attorney General in reviewing the Controller's audit. In this regard, Stedman avers that the Attorney General is tasked by section 5803(k) of the Forfeiture Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §5803(k), to adopt reporting procedures and guidelines for district attorneys to be used in auditing and reporting the forfeiture assets and with creating and submitting an annual report to the Appropriations and Judiciary Committees of the Pennsylvania House and Senate. Stedman alleges that the procedures and guidelines developed by the Attorney General, set forth at section 5803(k)(2) of the Forfeiture Act, are specifically designed and intended "to protect the confidentiality of forfeited property or proceeds used in ongoing law enforcement activities." (PFR ¶28) (quoting 42 Pa.C.S. §5803(k)(2)).

         Against this statutory background, Stedman alleges the following facts in support of his claims. He notes that he is currently in possession of forfeited funds and used a portion of them to lease a 2016 Toyota Highlander, which has been used by Stedman and members of the District Attorney's office as an "official vehicle." (PFR ¶29-31.) Stedman alleges that, prior to leasing the vehicle, he followed the well-established practice for the use of funds obtained through the Forfeiture Act, (PFR ¶32), and that he requested and received a certification from the Controller authorizing him to "lease and/or finance" the vehicle. (PFR ¶33; Exhibit A.) He avers that the Commissioners insisted that the lease agreement should have been subjected to their authority to approve contracts as prescribed in the Code of Lancaster County (Lancaster Code). (PFR ¶36.) Stedman contends that the contracting provisions of the Lancaster Code do not apply to forfeiture expenditures and maintains that the Commissioners' approval, per the provisions of the Lancaster Code, does not apply to expenditures incurred from funds obtained through the Forfeiture Act. (PFR ¶¶36, 39.) Stedman asserts that, instead, the Commissioners' sole involvement with the forfeiture funds is their collection, deposit into an account, and then immediate transfer to him as the District Attorney. (PFR ¶40.) Stedman alleges that, after the Commissioners transfer the funds to him, any investigation conducted by the Commissioners is actually an unlawful "audit" under the Forfeiture Act. More specifically, Stedman contends that such an "audit" usurps the statutory authority of the Controller and Attorney General under section 5803(j) and risks violating the confidentiality provisions at section 5803(j) and (k)(2). (PFR ¶¶44-46.)

         Stedman asserts that he brought these issues and concerns to the attention of the Commissioners through three letters that he sent on March 5 and 7 of 2019, respectively, requesting that the Commissioners "cease and desist [their] unlawful oversight." (PFR ¶¶47-48.) However, Stedman states that the Commissioners have maintained that they have the authority to review and/or audit his use of funds obtained by virtue of the Forfeiture Act as part of the procurement process in the Lancaster Code. (PFR ¶49.)

         Stedman also proffers facts to support his claim that he characterizes as "Employment disputes." (PFR ¶17.) Stedman avers that section 1420(a) of The County Code[5] empowers him as district attorney to "appoint such number of assistants, licensed to practice law in this Commonwealth, to assist in the discharge of duties," 16 P.S. §1420. (PFR ¶57.) Further, he avers that section 1620 of the County Code, 16 P.S. §1620, precludes the Commissioners from interfering with the hiring, discharging or supervision of such employees. (PFR ¶58.) Stedman asserts that after he suspended, with pay, and later reinstated an Assistant District Attorney in February 2019, the Commissioners conducted an investigation into his decisions. (PFR ¶¶59 - 61.) Stedman advised the Commissioners via letter that they lacked the authority to take this action, and the Commissioners allegedly responded by issuing a public statement containing confidential information. (PFR ¶¶62-64.) Stedman maintains that the Commissioners' investigation into matters that belong in his exclusive authority is unlawful as he is an "independent constitutional officer" not subject to review by the Commissioners. (PFR ¶68.)

         Stedman next avers that a "legal expense approval dispute" occurred between him and the Commissioners. According to Stedman, the Commissioners attempted to "intimidate and silence him by seeking to defund his attempts to defend himself against their illegal and unlawful encroachments." (PFR ¶70.) More specifically, Stedman alleges that on March 27, 2019, the Commissioners advised the Controller that they would not approve payment of any expenditures that Stedman incurred as a result of this lawsuit, including litigation costs and attorney's fees, challenging the Commissioners' authority. (PFR ¶¶81-82.) Stedman asserts that under the doctrine of separation of powers, he is entitled to recover the above expenditures and the Commissioners cannot retaliate against him for filing suit to vindicate his authority as District Attorney. (PFR ¶¶76-77.) He alleges that the Commissioners have already budgeted and appropriated funds for legal fees and expenses for him to use as District Attorney and that, because the funds have already been appropriated, the Commissioners cannot retroactively cancel or "defund" the appropriation. (PFR ¶¶79-80.) Stedman contends that, in this aspect, the Commissioners have violated "the Pennsylvania Constitution and basic separation of powers principles." (PFR ¶89.)

         Based on the foregoing allegations, Stedman asserts that he is entitled to relief in three separate counts. First, in Count I, which Stedman asserts against all the Respondents, including the Attorney General, Stedman pleads a claim for declaratory relief under the Declaratory Judgments Act.[6] Specifically, he seeks an order declaring that (1) only the Controller or Attorney General has the authority to audit or investigate the use of Forfeiture Act funds; (2) the Commissioners cannot audit or investigate his use of Forfeiture Act funds; and (3) the contracting procedures under The County Code do not apply to Stedman's expenditure of Forfeiture Act funds. He also requests that this Court (1) permanently enjoin the Commissioners and the named members of the County Commissioners from auditing or investigating him; (2) award attorney's fees and costs; and (3) grant further relief as deemed just and proper. (PFR ¶¶90-98.)

         In Count II, Stedman seeks declaratory relief against the County Commissioners and Parsons, Stuckey, and Lehman in their official capacities. Stedman requests an order decreeing that his employment decisions are not subject to review by these Respondents and that they cannot investigate him. He also requests that we permanently enjoin the County Commissioners and Parsons, Stuckey, and Lehman, individually and in their official capacities, from reviewing or investigating his employment decisions. Further, Stedman seeks an award of attorney's fees and costs and other relief as may be deemed proper. (PFR ¶¶99-106.)

         Finally, in Count III, Stedman seeks relief against the Commissioners and the Controller under the Declaratory Judgments Act. In this claim, Stedman asks that this Court declare that (1) he is entitled to payment of his attorney's fees and costs incurred as a result of this litigation pursuant to basic "separation of powers," (2) he is entitled to payment of his attorney's fees and costs incurred as a result of this litigation because the payments derive from funds that were already budgeted and appropriated by the Commissioners, and (3) the payment of such costs and fees do not require the approval of either the Commissioners or the Controller. Stedman also requests that we permanently enjoin the Commissioners and the Controller from refusing to approve these costs and fees, award him attorney's fees and costs, and assess other relief as we deem just and proper. (PFR ¶¶107 -115; pp. 33- 34)

         Significantly, Stedman alleges that this Court has original jurisdiction over the claims in Count I of the PFR under section 761(a)(1) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. §761(a)(1), and ancillary jurisdiction over Counts II and III because they are related to Count I. (PFR ¶¶7-8.) Stedman avers that Joshua Shapiro, as Attorney General, is an indispensable party to Count I of the action because resolution of this claim could have an impact on his authority under the Forfeiture Act. (PFR ¶16.)

         On the same date that he filed the amended PFR, Stedman filed an application for relief, requesting that summary relief be granted on Counts I through III of the amended PFR.

         On May 7, 2019, the County Commissioners and Parsons, Stuckey, and Lehman in their official capacities filed preliminary objections to the amended PFR. In these preliminary objections, the above Respondents assert that this Court lacks original jurisdiction over the case; that Stedman fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; and that the case should be dismissed for presenting a non-justiciable controversy.[7]

         On May 9, 2019, the Controller filed an answer to the amended PFR. On June 7, 2019, the Attorney General filed an answer and new matter to the amended PFR. In this filing, the Attorney General alleges that he should "have the opportunity to be heard" to the extent that this Court's decision could "directly impact the statutory role of the Attorney General" under the Forfeiture Act. (Attorney General's Answer, 6/7/2018, at 2.) Otherwise, with respect to the averments in the amended PFR that involve or pertain to the Attorney General, the Attorney General either asserts a general denial or states that the averment is a conclusion of law to which no response is necessary. Subsequently, the parties filed briefs in support and opposition to the preliminary objections and Stedman's application for summary relief.

         II. Discussion

         We begin with the Commissioners' preliminary objections asserting that (1) this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over all claims in the PFR, (2) the PFR fails to plead a justiciable case or controversy, and (3) Stedman has failed to state a legally sufficient claim.

         In support of their argument that we lack subject matter jurisdiction, the Commissioners first assert that as a "political subdivision" they are not included within the definition of "Commonwealth government" or an "officer" of the Commonwealth government, as required to invoke this Court's original jurisdiction under section 761(a)(1) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. §761(a)(1). Additionally, the Commissioners argue that merely naming the Attorney General as a party in Count I is insufficient to confer this Court with original jurisdiction. The Commissioners contend that the Attorney General is not an indispensable party to the present matter and point out that Stedman is not seeking any relief against the Attorney General. The Commissioners posit that because this Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over Count I, we lack ancillary jurisdiction over Counts II or III under section 761(c) of the Judicial Code.

         In opposition, Stedman argues that this Court possesses subject matter and original jurisdiction over Count I. Stedman asserts that the Attorney General is an indispensable party under Count I because he requested a declaration that will adjudicate rights and responsibilities that will have an impact on the statutory role of the Attorney General under the Forfeiture Act. Stedman further asserts that disposition of Count I could enhance or erode the Attorney General's rights, and implicate the Attorney General's obligations and duties, under the Forfeiture Act. In this vein, Stedman asserts that we possess ancillary jurisdiction over Counts II and III because they are sufficiently related to Count I.

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing preliminary objections, all material facts averred in the complaint, and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, are admitted as true. Vattimo v. Lower Bucks Hospital, Inc., 465 A.2d 1231, 1232 (Pa. 1983); Fletcher v. Pennsylvania Property & Casualty Insurance Guaranty Association, 914 A.2d 477, 479 n.2 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007), aff'd, 985 A.2d 678 (Pa. 2009). However, a court need not accept as true conclusions of law, unwarranted inferences, argumentative allegations, or expressions of opinion. Portalatin v. Department of Corrections, 979 A.2d 944, 947 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009). "Preliminary objections should be sustained only in cases that are clear and free from doubt." Pennsylvania AFL-CIO v. Commonwealth, 757 A.2d 917, 920 (Pa. 2000).

         B. Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         We begin with the undisputed basic principle that this Court, as any other court, must have subject matter jurisdiction over a controversy because, without it, any judgment rendered would be void. Patterson v. Shelton, 175 A.3d 442, 449 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017) (citations omitted). Thus, "whenever a court discovers that it lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter or a cause of action, it is compelled to dismiss the ...


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