In Clearfield County … Reassessment Lawsuit Dismissed

Clearfield County Courthouse. (GantDaily File Photo)

CLEARFIELD – The lawsuit against the Clearfield County Commissioners and Clearfield County Board of Assessment Appeals has been dismissed from court.

The commissioners and assessment appeals board were served with the lawsuit in January. The commissioners had been aware of a potential lawsuit regarding property taxation for almost a year.

The lawsuit was filed by David W. Fox, on behalf of himself and a committee of unidentified concerned citizens. According to the lawsuit it seeked “a declaration of the defendants’ unconstitutional assessment and taxation of real property … due to a lack of uniformity and fairness in taxation. This action also sought to have (the court) compel the defendants to conduct a county-wide reassessment of all properties in Clearfield County for taxation purposes.”

The lawsuit cited a recent decision in Allegheny County. Kesner said it would be a mistake to compare markets in an urban area such as Allegheny County with a rural county like Clearfield County.

The lawsuit claimed that Fox’s property is being taxed at a higher percentage of the fair market value than other properties throughout the taxing area.

“Fox’s property is thus being unfairly and unconstitutionally taxed, such that, under the circumstances, relief must be granted in the form of a county-wide reassessment of property values for real estate taxation purposes.

“Clearfield County has over 68,000 parcels in 51 municipalities, all contributing to an unacceptably significant disparity from uniformity in taxation within the county, and as compared to generally acceptable, constitutionally mandated, standards of assessment.”

The lawsuit also points to the last time Clearfield County conducted a county-wide reassessment, 1989.

“Clearfield County’s hiatus of over 20 years in undertaking a county-wide reassessment has created intolerable and illegal assessment disparities among properties of comparable value. The ratios of assessed values and market values of comparable properties in Clearfield County is not uniform and in fact, are frequently highly divergent and inconsistent. The existing assessments have created and perpetuated an illegal discriminatory effect between taxpayers in the county. “

The county countered the complaint, filing preliminary objections to the lawsuit in February. County Solicitor Kim Kesner filed four objections. The first objected to legal insufficiency of pleading in the lawsuit. The objection states that Fox filed his lawsuit “on behalf of a Committee of Concerned Citizens”, none of whom are identified. It furthers that the complaint does not comport with the Rules of Civil Procedure that govern class actions.

“Without such compliance, the designation of David W. Fox in the caption as a representative of a “Committee of Concerned Citizens” and averment contained in paragraph one of his status as a representative ‘of a Committee of Concerned Citizens’ are legally immaterial and must be struck.”

The second objection was a failure to exercise or exhaust a statutory remedy. In this objection, Kesner states that Fox has failed to exhaust the adequate statutory remedy.

Among other items, the third objection stated a legal insufficiency of a pleading. Kesner states that the lawsuit contains “no allegation of actual empirical studies or statistical proofs prepared by plaintiff or available to plaintiff by demonstrating disparities in actual assessments.

The fourth objection was a lack of conformity to law or rule of court and inclusion of impertinent matter. It states that Fox’s complaint impermissibly contains as an exhibit evidentiary material. It further states later that “Exhibit A to Plaintiff Fox’s complaint constitutes legally impertinent matter which must be struck.

Kesner’s filing asked the judge to dismiss Fox’s complaint.

Clearfield County Judge Fredric J. Ammerman’s opinions on the case were filed on June 22. Ammerman addressed Kesner’s first preliminary objection:

“In order to have standing under the Declaratory Judgment Act, a Plaintiff must have ‘…rights, status, and other legal relations…’ affected.”

Ammerman cited legal cases and then noted, “In the present matter, Plaintiff is attempting to pursue this matter individually and in a representative capacity for an unidentified “Committee of Concerned Citizens,” and Plaintiff fails to sufficiently allege how the members of the committee have existing rights that can be adjudicated. Plaintiff states that he has “no ‘intent’ to institute the instant action as a ‘class action’.

“… an examination of the Plaintiff’s complaint reveals none of the facts necessary to establish a direct, immediate, and substantial injury to the individual ‘concerned citizens.’ The complaint is merely replete with allegations of unconstitutionality, contain none of the allegations of injury which could confer standing to pursue this action by Plaintiff on behalf of ‘A Committee of Concerned [and unidentified] Citizens.’ Hence, the Court will sustain the Defendants’ preliminary objection as to standing and dismiss the Plaintiff’s complaint.”

In regard to the county’s second objection, Ammerman ruled in favor of the county, finding that Fox “failed to exhaust his statutory remedy of an appeal under the Fourth to Eighth Class County Assessment Law.

“Plaintiff cannot circumvent this process to present his uniformity challenge in the Court’s equitable jurisdiction.”

Ammerman later states, “Plaintiff fails to support his contention that this property is being taxed at a higher rate of fair market value than other properties. Plaintiff’s complaint merely contains generalized and conclusory allegations of ‘taxation inequality,’ which are not sufficient to confer equity jurisdiction in this matter. The Court finds the Plaintiff has an adequate remedy through the appeal process, where he can appeal to the Clearfield County Board of Assessment, and if he is not satisfied, Plaintiff can appeal for review by this Court.

One of the items Ammerman touched on in his decision was Fox’s use of the Clifton v. Allegheny County case. Ammerman noted that the facts of the Clifton case are both factually and legally distinguishable from the Clearfield County case.

“First, Clifton involved a situation where the Court was exercising equity jurisdiction to implement the County Council’s series of ordinances providing for reassessment, and taxpayers were challenging the legality of a particular ordinance. Clearly, this is not the case in the present matter. Additionally, the holding in Clifton was specifically limited to Allegheny County. Finally, Clifton dealt with the trial court’s finding that the Pennsylvania assessment statutes themselves were unconstitutional, whereas, in the present matter, the Plaintiff makes no challenge to the Fourth to Eighth Class County Assessment Law.”

Ammerman then cites the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case, in which the Supreme Court says that a taxpayer who thinks that their property is inequitably taxed can go through the county board of assessment appeals. That decision can then be appealed in the Court of Common Pleas.

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