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City of Philadelphia v. Pien

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

December 20, 2019

City of Philadelphia
v.
Shih Tai Pien, Appellant

          Submitted: November 12, 2019

          BEFORE: HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE ELLEN CEISLER, Judge

          OPINION

          PATRICIA A. MCCULLOUGH, JUDGE

         Shih Tai Pien (Pien) appeals from the December 31, 2018 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) granting a permanent injunction requiring Pien to remediate violations of Chapter 3, Subcode A of the Philadelphia Building Construction and Occupancy Code, which is known as the Administrative Code, and violations of the Philadelphia Fire Code (Fire Code), [1] and imposing a $7, 500 fine.

         Background

         On December 11, 2017, the City of Philadelphia's (City) Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) issued an initial notice of violation to Pien regarding alleged violations of the Philadelphia Fire and Administrative Codes occurring at 1124 Walnut Street, Philadelphia (Property). (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 33a.) Specifically, the notice cited Pien for failure to obtain a registration permit and certificate of occupancy for the Property, missing swivel fittings and caps on the exterior hose connections for the fire suppression system, "communication failure" on the fire alarm system, and lack of a fire alarm and fire suppression system certification. Id. L&I re-inspected the Property a month later. Finding that the violations had not been corrected, L&I issued a final warning notice. (R.R. at 37a-38a.) The final warning stated that if the violations were not corrected, the City would file an enforcement action in the trial court.

         On June 7, 2018, the City filed a complaint in equity against Pien in the trial court. Pien accepted personal service of the complaint on July 31, 2018. (Original Record (O.R.) at Item No. 8.) Pien did not file an answer to the complaint and initially did not retain counsel. The trial court held a hearing on September 13, 2018. At that hearing, an L&I inspector testified that Pien had not obtained the necessary registration permits and certificates of occupancy for the Property. (R.R. at 41a.) Pien stated that the tenants at the Property had been in place for a number of years; however, she acknowledged that she still needed to obtain the necessary permits. (R.R. at 41a-42a.)

         At the hearing, Pien provided a packet of materials to the City regarding the fire alarm and fire suppression system certifications. (R.R. at 42a-43a.) The City accepted the fire suppression certification, but did not accept the fire alarm certification. Id. At the close of the hearing, the trial court stated that it would provide Pien an additional 60 days to remedy the violations. (R.R. at 43a.) Thereafter, the trial court issued an order requiring Pien to obtain a corrected fire alarm certification, repair the "Fire Department connection," and obtain registration permits and certificates of occupancy for the second, third, and fourth floors of the Property by November 9, 2018. (O.R. at Item No. 9.)

         A subsequent hearing was held on November 8, 2018. The City's attorney stated that he and the L&I inspector spoke with Pien and that he thought she understood "very little of what [they were] saying." (R.R. at 46a.) Accordingly, the City's attorney requested a Mandarin interpreter and asked to continue the hearing in order to obtain an interpreter. Id. The trial court continued the hearing until December 20, 2018, so that an interpreter could be present. Id.

         At the December 20, 2018 hearing, Pien was provided with an interpreter. (R.R. at 49a.) The L&I inspector testified that he last inspected the Property on December 17, 2018. (R.R. at 50a.) The inspector noted that the stand pipe and automatic sprinkler were missing Fire Department connections and that there was a "communication failure" for the fire alarm system. (R.R. at 51a.) The inspector also testified that the second, third, and fourth floors were illegally occupied because they lacked certificates of occupancy. Id.

         While Pien introduced documentation in an attempt to show that the problems were fixed, the trial court concluded the documentation was insufficient to establish that Pien resolved the outstanding violations of the Property. (R.R. at 52a.) Pien stated that she wished to hire someone to fix the problems. Id. The trial court noted that it had already been a year since the notice of the violations, the violations were still outstanding, and Pien was afforded additional time to remedy the violations. Id. The trial court stated that Pien had provided no evidence to refute the evidence of the violations. Id. The trial court decided to allow Pien and her tenants until December 31, 2018, to vacate the Property.

         Pien testified that she needed a month to give her tenants notice. Id. The trial court stated that it would only give her until December 31, 2018, to vacate the Property because the issues had been longstanding. Pien asked if it would be possible to have a company fix the system right away. Id. The trial court found that Pien had failed to produce the necessary documents for the Property to remain inhabited, but stated that to the extent she made the necessary repairs, she could ask the City to do an investigation and inspection and the information could be provided to the court. (R.R. at 53a.) The trial court concluded that if Pien obtained the necessary repairs and certificates of occupancy by December 31, 2018, she would not have to vacate the Property. Id. The trial court also determined that a fine was appropriate, but that the fine would be conditional in case Pien managed to correct the violations by December 31, 2018. Id. Accordingly, following the hearing, the trial court issued an order and permanent injunction requiring Pien to obtain registration permits and certificates of occupancy for the Property, correct the Fire Department connection, properly install all sprinkler heads, correct all other violations listed in the initial notice of violation, and ensure that L&I had marked the violations as "complied." (R.R. at 57a.) The order further deemed the averments in the City's complaint admitted due to Pien's failure to file an answer. The trial court also imposed a fine of $7, 500, conditioned on Pien not remedying the violations by December 31, 2018. Id.

         The day after the injunction was entered, Pien retained counsel. On December 24, 2018, her counsel filed a motion for reconsideration and for extraordinary relief, seeking to vacate the order. While that motion was pending, Pien's counsel filed an emergency motion to stay. The trial court denied both motions. Pien's counsel also filed a motion for reconsideration of the order denying the motion to stay, which was denied. Subsequently, the trial court issued an amended order on December 31, 2018, imposing a fine of $7, 500, because Pien failed to remedy the violations, and authorizing the City to require occupants at the Property to vacate and cease operations. The amended order also relisted the matter for January 17, 2019, for the court to determine if the terms of its order had been violated and/or if the property remained in violation of the Philadelphia Code. Pien then appealed the December 31, 2018 order.[2]The trial court held a brief hearing on January 17, 2019, at which it noted that an appeal was pending; therefore, the trial court refused to further consider the matter until the appeal had concluded.

         In its Rule 1925(b) statement of errors complained of on appeal, Pien's counsel argued, inter alia, that the trial court violated Pien's due process rights by (1) issuing an 11-day compliance deadline that was impossible to meet over a long weekend; (2) failing to provide a hearing between the December 20, 2018 hearing and the December 31, 2018 deadline for the court to monitor compliance with its order; and (3) deeming the averments in the City's complaint in equity as admitted before Pien had appeared in court with an interpreter.

         In its Rule 1925(a) opinion, the trial court observed that Pien's claim that she was only given 11 days to fix the outstanding violations was "patently false." (Trial court op. at 5.) The court recognized that the initial notices of violation were issued in December 2017 and January 2018 and, thus, Pien had an entire year to bring the subject property into compliance with The Philadelphia Code. The court also stated that at the September 13, 2018 hearing, Pien was given an additional 60 days to come into full compliance. The trial court also explained that the rule of law was not suspended during holiday weekends and, in fact, Pien had full access to the court during the time complained of, as evidenced by the number of emergency motions filed. Id.

         Additionally, the trial court determined that its decision to not conduct a hearing between the December 20, 2018 hearing and the December 31, 2018 compliance deadline did not violate Pien's due process rights. Id. The trial court stated that the purpose of the December 20, 2018 hearing was to ensure that the violations at the Property had been corrected and that, despite Pien's earlier assurances that the necessary repairs would be made, Pien had failed to address the Fire Code violations as of that date. The trial court concluded that Pien had continued to have tenants occupy the Property, "which without the proper [c]ertificate of [o]ccupancy resulted in the [c]ourt ordering the [P]roperty to be vacated on December 31, 2018 based on [Pien's] failure to bring the [P]roperty into compliance within a year." Id. at 5-6.

         The trial court further concluded that it had not violated Pien's due process rights by deeming the averments in the complaint as admitted before Pien appeared in court with an interpreter. Specifically, the trial court found as follows:

In prior hearings [Pien] fully engaged in the full discussions at the Bar of the Court without the use of an interpreter. [Pien] was able to ask questions and provide responses to questions posed to her during each hearing. Her interactions with the [i]nspectors from [L&I], the Assistant City Solicitor and the [c]ourt gave no indication that she required an interpreter. [Pien] never asked for an interpreter at any of the hearings. It was the Assistant City Solicitor who, in an abundance of caution, requested the use of the interpreter because [Pien] maintained that she did not understand the discussions of the City when the issue of outstanding fines were posed to [Pien].

Id. at 6.

         Discussion

         On appeal, [3] Pien argues that the trial court violated her due process rights by (1) deeming the averments in the City's complaint as admitted before Pien had appeared in court with an interpreter; (2) issuing an 11-day deadline over a holiday weekend for Pien to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the Property; and (3) failing to provide a hearing between the December 20, 2018 hearing and the December 31, 2018 deadline for the court to monitor compliance with its order. Pien also argues that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear all aspects of the case and that the ...


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