Assessment Appeals: No Rules...Umm, Alright?

There are no rules in assessment appeals. Okay, that's hyperbole, but because assessment appeals are not "civil actions" as defined by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rules"), the Rules do not apply to such cases. Therefore, unless there is an applicable local rule, attorneys and the courts just make it up as they go along. See Tanglewood Lakes Community Assoc'n. v. Pike Cnty. Bd. of Assessment, 642 A.2d 581, 582-83 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1994) (noting that while the Rules do not apply to real estate tax assessment appeals, courts, through their inherent powers, have "discretion to permit or to refuse discovery")Beware, because if you do assume the Rules apply at any stage, you may make a grave error that will prejudice your client. Downingtown Area Sch. Dist. v. Chester Cty. Bd. of Assessment Appeals, No. 1461 C.D. 2016, 2017 WL 2883271, at *3-*5 (Pa. Commw. Ct. July 7, 2017), reargument denied (Aug. 29, 2017) (quashing the taxpayer's appeal because trial court counsel made an "inaccurate assumption" that the Rules applied to allow post-trial motions and, therefore, had missed the deadline to appeal the trial court's decision). 

In Allegheny County, where case law reflects a long history of litigating tax assessment appeals, the local rules governing such appeals can be found here. These rules, and specifically local rule 503, provide for discovery, notice, caption form, judicial assignment, motion practice, etcetera. By contrast, Philadelphia County is like the Wild West (in a very tame, lawyerly sort of way). There is no local rule indicating how real estate tax assessment appeals should be captioned, how discovery should be conducted (if at all), whether motion practice is even allowed, or any other indication of how the appeal should be conducted. Even experienced practitioners could be surprised if the City or the Courts decide to alter the (undocumented) local practice.

In fact, the Court is about to change the regular practice and procedure for tax assessment appeals.  Judge Idee C. Fox, Supervising Judge of the Philadelphia Civil Trial Division, will not continue to assign all assessment appeals to the motions court judges but is beginning to disperse such cases among all judges in the Civil Trial Division. Will this mean individual assignment? Will motions go to the motions court judges as with all civil cases? Nobody knows.

Perhaps most importantly, in this post-Valley Forge era, there is no rule for discovery in Philadelphia. If a taxpayer suspects her property has been unfairly targeted by the City or the School District and wishes to attain discovery to prepare a uniformity argument on appeal to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, can she discover that information? It will depend on whether the court feels like allowing such discovery; case law suggests that no discovery may be allowed unless leave of court is first sought. Tanglewood, 642 A.2d at 582.  And, remember, just because what is sought may lead to the discovery of admissible evidence does not mean the judge will allow the discovery, because the Rules do not apply and discovery is in the court's discretion.

 

 

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