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Assouline v. Reynolds

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

November 20, 2019

NISSIM ASSOULINE, Appellee
v.
JACQUELINE REYNOLDS AND CHARLES REYNOLDS, Appellants

          SUBMITTED: July 8, 2019

          Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered March 9, 2018 at No. 674 WDA 2017, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Civil Division, entered May 2, 2017 at LT No. 17-000259.

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          TODD JUSTICE

         In this discretionary appeal, we address whether a magisterial district court had jurisdiction over a case proceeding under the Landlord and Tenant Act, [1] where the plaintiff was the purchaser of a property at a sheriff's sale and the defendants were the property's former owners who refused to leave, but where the parties did not have a landlord-tenant relationship. We conclude the court did not have jurisdiction, and so reverse and remand.

         Appellants Jacqueline and Charles Reynolds were the owners and occupants of residential property in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. After they failed to pay real estate taxes on the property for many years, Appellee Nissim Assouline purchased the property at a sheriff's sale in 2015. Although the Reynoldses filed a petition to set aside the sheriff's sale, the petition was denied, and that determination was upheld on appeal. See Bethel Park School District v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 3196682 (Pa. Cmwlth. filed June 9, 2016), appeal denied, Bethel Park School District v. Reynolds, 164 A.3d 454 (Pa. 2016) (order), cert. denied, Reynolds v. Bethel Park School District, 138 S.Ct. 109 (2017).

         Although, as we discuss below, there was not a landlord-tenant relationship between the parties, on February 1, 2017, Assouline filed an action, on a standard landlord/tenant complaint form, [2] with a magisterial district judge ("MDJ") in Bethel Park, seeking unpaid "rent" of $12, 000 and possession of the property. Two weeks later, on February 15, 2017, the MDJ ruled in favor of Assouline, on a form denominated "NOTICE OF JUDGMENT/TRANSCRIPT Residential Lease," granting Assouline possession of the property, as well as a judgment in the amount of $12, 202.85, representing $12, 000.00 for "rent in arrears" and $202.85 for filing fees.

         Thereafter, the Reynoldses filed a praecipe for writ of certiorari with the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County; in that court, they filed a specification of errors, alleging that the MDJ lacked subject matter jurisdiction to resolve the dispute. They averred that there was no lease agreement between the parties, that Assouline was not a landlord, and that, therefore, the MDJ lacked jurisdiction to entertain an eviction proceeding. The Reynoldses did not specifically challenge the award of monetary relief, but explicitly requested that the trial court strike the order of possession. For his part, in his response to the specification of errors, Assouline admitted the Reynoldses' averments that there was no lease agreement and that he was not a landlord.

         In a single-page order dated May 2, 2017, the trial court denied relief. The court recognized that there "appears to be no contention" that there was a landlord-tenant relationship between the parties. Trial Court Order, 5/2/2017. Nevertheless, the court concluded that "whether characterized technically as a landlord/tenant case, trespass case, or simple civil claim wherein the sum demanded does not exceed $12, 000.00, [3] the [MDJ] was not without jurisdiction to enter the February 15, 2017 judgment for [Assouline]." Id.

         The Reynoldses appealed to the Superior Court, again challenging the MDJ's jurisdiction over the matter. In response, Assouline argued that the MDJ had jurisdiction as a matter arising under the Landlord and Tenant Act, or as an action in trespass. The Superior Court affirmed. Assouline v. Reynolds, 184 A.3d 970 (Pa. Super. 2018).

         The Superior Court, like the trial court, recognized that the parties "did not have a formal landlord/tenant agreement"[4] - indeed, Assouline conceded to the court that "[t]here exists no landlord tenant relationship between the parties."[5] Nonetheless, the court determined that the MDJ had jurisdiction over the proceedings under 42 Pa.C.S. § 1515(a)(2), which grants MDJs jurisdiction over "[m]atters arising under" the Landlord and Tenant Act. The court's reasoning in this regard was based upon several disparate observations. First, the court noted that, under the Act, "any person who acquires title to real property by descent or purchase shall be liable to the same duties and shall have the same rights, powers and remedies in relation to the property as the person from whom title was acquired." Assouline, 184 A.3d at 973 (quoting 68 P.S. § 250.104). Second, it observed that, also under the Act, "[i]n the case of a tenant whose right of possession is not paramount to that of the purchaser at a sheriff's or other judicial sale, the latter shall have the right as a landlord to collect by assumpsit or to distrain for rent from the date of the acknowledgment of his deed." Id. (quoting 68 P.S. § 250.304). Third, the court opined that, even without a lease agreement, unjust enrichment was an available remedy under the circumstances. Finally, the court recounted the generic precept that an ejectment action is a possessory action only, and, thus, can succeed only when the plaintiff is out of possession. Id. (quoting Croyle v. Dellape, 832 A.2d 466, 476 (Pa. Super. 2003)).

         Without explaining how these principles combined into a coherent whole, the court reasoned that, "[t]aking all of these legal concepts together," they led to the conclusion that the MDJ had jurisdiction under the Act:

[I]t was previously determined that Assouline has proper title over the subject property. Thus, he has the right to possession. Furthermore, [the Reynoldses] were unjustly enriched when they continued living at the residence in question without any compensation to Assouline. Hence, there was a contract implied in fact and Assouline was permitted to file an action for ejectment and rental arrears in the magisterial district court, in the same way a landlord would seek recovery.

Id. at 974.

         Next, noting, in the alternative, that MDJs have jurisdiction over civil claims up to $12, 000 under 42 Pa.C.S. § 1515(a)(3), and that a trespass action provides a remedy for a landowner upon whose property one intentionally remains, id. (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 158), the court determined that the MDJ in this case had jurisdiction on this basis as well, because "Appellants remained on the land that was held in possession of another." Id. Thus, in summing up, the court stated that the MDJ had jurisdiction "over this trespass action where the civil claim did not exceed $12, 000.00 and Assouline was entitled to rent in arrears based upon unjust enrichment and a contract implied in law." Id.

         The Reynoldses sought further review from this Court, which we granted to address the following issue: "Whether the Superior Court erred in determining that the magisterial district court had subject matter jurisdiction where the Appellee filed a landlord tenant action but there was no landlord and no lease." Assouline v. Reynolds, 201 A.3d 152 (Pa. 2019) (order).

         Before us, the Reynoldses renew their contention that the MDJ lacked jurisdiction over this matter under the Landlord and Tenant Act, "where there was no landlord and no lease." Appellants' Brief at 4. Thus, they assert, the averments required for a landlord-tenant complaint were unsustainable. Id. at 14 (citing Pa.R.C.P.M.D.J. 503(C), which requires, inter alia, that the "plaintiff is the landlord" ...


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