Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law

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In consolidated cross-appeals, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted review to consider whether three statutory provisions, the “Donated or Dedicated Property Act” (“DDPA”), the “Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act” (“Project 70 Act”), and the Eminent Domain Code, allow Appellant Downingtown Borough (“Borough”) to sell four parcels of land to private housing developers , Appellants Progressive Housing Ventures, LLC and J. Loew and Associates, Inc. (“Developers”). The four parcels comprised a public community park owned and maintained by the Borough, and were held by the Borough as trustee. After review, the Court vacated the order of the Commonwealth Court with respect to the Borough’s proposed sale to Developers of two southern parcels, reversed the order regarding the proposed sale by the Borough to Developers of two northern parcels, and reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court involving the Borough’s grant of easements to Developers over all parcels. The Borough was required to obtain court approval before selling the parcels, and easements over the land would have subordinated public rights to the parcels to private rights. View "Downingtown Borough (Friends of Kardon Park, Aplts)" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was the ownership and use of certain undesignated property and the road that ran the length of a peninsula jutting into Lake Meade, the man-made lake at the heart of a planned community. Property owners complained about loitering and trespassing, and accused their governing homeowners association (HOA) of not enforcing community rules to encourage the bad behavior. The property owners took the HOA to court in a quiet title action to settle ownership over the undesignated property, specifically that they owned the property at issue, that the HOA asserted wrongful possession over the property at issue, and that the HOA intentionally and unreasonably allowed trespass and loitering. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part, finding that the property owners have an easement across the property at issue, like the other owners in the community. “Although the Superior Court seemed skeptical about the complained-of uses of the disputed property, it evidently recognized that it would be premature to venture a legal opinion on that subject.” The Supreme Court reversed the superior court under directing the entry of judgment in the Starlings’ favor on their claim for injunctive relief regarding the use of disputed property, as well as its reversal of the trial court’s determination that the HOA did not own the property in fee simple subject to Subdivision owners’ access easements and any other established rights-of-way. View "Starling v. Lake Meade Prop." on Justia Law

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The underlying litigation arose out of a land-ownership dispute between Jean Louse Villani, who was a co-plaintiff with her late husband until his death, and defendants John Seibert, Jr. and his mother, Mary Seibert (“Appellants”). Appellants prevailed in both an initial quiet title action and ensuing ejectment proceedings. During the course of this dispute, the Villanis were represented by Thomas Schneider, Esquire (“Appellee”). Appellants notified Mrs. Villani and Appellee that they intended to pursue a lawsuit for wrongful use of civil proceedings based upon Mrs. Villani’s and Appellee’s invocation of the judicial process to raise purportedly groundless claims. In November 2012, Mrs. Villani countered by commencing her own action seeking a judicial declaration vindicating her position that she did nothing wrong and bore no liability to Appellants. In this interlocutory direct appeal by permission, the issue presented was whether a legislative enactment recognizing a cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings infringed upon the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s constitutionally prescribed power to regulate the practice of law, insofar as such wrongful-use actions may be advanced against attorneys. As was relevant here, Appellee contended that the statutory scheme embodying a cause of action for wrongful use of civil proceedings, the “Dragonetti Act,” was an unconstitutional incursion by the General Assembly upon the Court’s power under Article V, Section 10(c). Given this asserted defect, he claimed that attorneys should be immunized from any liability under these statutory provisions. Appellee has failed to establish that the Dragonetti Act clearly and palpably violated the Pennsylvania Constitution, or that the Supreme Court should per se immunize attorneys, as attorneys, from the application of the substantive tort principles promulgated by the political branch in the Dragonetti Act. View "Villani v. Seibert" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a contractor could maintain an action under the Contractor and Subcontractor Payment Act (CASPA) against a property owner’s agents. Beginning in 2005, Appellant Scungio Borst & Associates (SBA) entered into a series of written and oral construction contracts with Appellee 410 Shurs Lane Developers, LLC (410 SLD), which 410 SLD’s part-owner and president, Appellee Robert DeBolt, executed on 410 SLD’s behalf. Therein, SBA agreed to improve real property owned by 410 SLD in connection with the development of a condominium complex, and did so until November 2006, when SBA’s contracts were terminated with approximately $1.5 million in outstanding payments due. SBA requested payment, but 410 SLD, again through DeBolt, refused. Accordingly, SBA sued 410 SLD; its alleged successor corporation, Appellee Kenworth II, LLC; and DeBolt in his personal capacity. SBA asserted, among other claims, violations of CASPA. After careful review, the Supreme Court held that a contractor could not maintain an action under CASPA, and, accordingly, affirmed the order of the Superior Court. View "Scungio Borst & Assoc. v. 410 Shurs Lane Developers, LLC" on Justia Law

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This case concerned the ownership of subsurface rights to a tract of land, the Eleanor Siddons Warrant, located in Rush Township, Centre County. The parties’ claims depended on whether a 1935 tax sale resulted in the transfer of the entire property or merely the surface rights. After extensive review of the historical law regarding tax sales of unseated land in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the tax sale related to the entire property at issue, including both the surface and subsurface estates. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Superior Court’s order vacating the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Appellants and remanding to the trial court for the grant of summary judgment to the Appellee. View "Herder Spring Hunting Club v. Keller" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the Superior Court properly applied the doctrine of estoppel by deed to conclude that an oil and gas lease between Appellee, Anadarko E. & P. Co., L.P. and Appellants, Leo and Sandra Shedden, covered the oil and gas rights to 100% of the property identified in the lease, notwithstanding the fact that, unbeknownst to them, Appellants owned only a one-half interest in the oil and gas rights to the property at the time the lease was executed, and, consequently, received a bonus payment only for the oil and gas rights they actually owned. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that the Superior Court properly affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Anadarko based on estoppel by deed. View "Shedden v. Anadarko E&P Co." on Justia Law

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Appellees were 34 individuals who owned or resided on properties adjacent to a 220-acre farm in York County, owned since 1986 by appellant George Phillips. Phillips operated his own farm, Hilltop Farms, and leased part of the land to appellant Steve Troyer, who raised various crops. Appellants Synagro Central, LLC and Synagro Mid-Atlantic are corporate entities engaged in the business of recycling biosolids for public agencies for land application; they contracted with municipalities to recycle and transport biosolids, which were then used as fertilizer. Over approximately 54 days between March 2006 and April 2009, approximately 11,635 wet tons of biosolids were applied to 14 fields at the farm. The biosolids were spread over the fields’ surface and not immediately tilled or plowed into the soil. Appellees contended that as soon as the biosolids were applied, extremely offensive odors emanated. In July 2008, appellees filed two similar three-count complaints, which were consolidated; they also filed an amended complaint in 2010. In Count I, appellees alleged appellants’ biosolids activities created a private nuisance. Count II alleged negligence by appellants in their duty to properly handle and dispose of the biosolids. Count III alleged appellants’ biosolids activities constituted a trespass on appellees’ land. Appellees sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. In October 2009, after receiving the third notice of violation from the PaDEP, Synagro suspended the use of biosolids at Hilltop Farms, rendering appellees’ request for injunctive relief moot. The last application of biosolids at the farm occurred in April 2009. Appellants moved for summary judgment on the basis that appellees’ nuisance claims were barred by the one-year statute of repose in section 954(a) of the Right To Farm Act (RTFA). The issue this appeal presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a trial court or a jury should have determined the applicability of section 954(a), and whether the trial court properly concluded the land application of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural operation,” rendering section 954(a) applicable. The Court held that section 954(a) was a statute of repose; its applicability, as determined by statutory interpretation, was a question of law for courts to decide. Further, the trial court properly held biosolids application fell within the RTFA’s definition of “normal agricultural operation,” which barred appellees’ nuisance claims. Accordingly, the Court reversed the portion of the Superior Court’s order that reversed the grant of summary judgment for appellants on the nuisance claims; the remainder of the order was affirmed. View "Gilbert v. Synagro Central" on Justia Law

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This matter concerned a parcel of commercial/industrial property located in Springettsbury Township, which was owned by appellee Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Approximately 110 acres of the parcel contained buildings and other improvements, and the remaining 119 acres were considered “excess” land. Previously, the United States Navy, from 1941 until 1964, and, later, a private firm, American Machinery and Foundry Company (“AMF”), with whom Harley-Davidson merged in 1969, used the parcel to operate a weapons manufacturing plant and, in the course of their business, buried numerous contaminants (as well as unexploded military ordnance) in the subsurface strata. This use caused significant environmental damage to the property. In 1993, Harley-Davidson repurposed a portion of the site to operate a motorcycle manufacturing plant. In 2003, the Assessment Office of York County notified Harley-Davidson that it intended to increase the parcel’s property tax assessment. Harley-Davidson filed an appeal with the York County Board of Assessment Appeals, which affirmed. Harley-Davidson then filed a de novo appeal with the trial court. Appellant Central York School District (“School District”) intervened, and the parties proceeded to a three-day bench trial to determine the parcel’s assessments for tax years 2004 through 2010, pursuant to the Second Class A and Third Class County Assessment Law. This appeal by allowance before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court involved the proper determination of the fair market value of Harley-Davidson's property for purposes of property tax assessment, including consideration of environmental contamination, remediation, and stigma, as well as the potential for future subdivision of the property. After review, the Supreme Court found: (1) hypothetical ways in which a property could be used by potential buyers are properly considered by an expert in evaluating what a willing buyer would pay for a property; (2) the potential effect of agreements concerning possible environmental remediation liability and ongoing environmental restrictions and maintenance is a relevant factor that must be taken into account when determining the fair market value of property, and (3) environmental stigma may be relevant to determining fair market value of real estate for tax purposes in appropriate circumstances. The Supreme concluded: (1) the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the School District’s expert valued the subject property as already subdivided, and, thus, its determination in this regard was reversed; (2) the Commonwealth Court properly concluded that these agreements were not accounted for by the trial court; thus, the Commonwealth Court’s remand was affirmed; and (3) the trial court properly relied upon the School District’s expert’s opinion regarding a 5% environmental stigma devaluation for the property; thus, reversed the Commonwealth Court’s rejection of the trial court’s reliance upon such stigma in its valuation of the property. View "Harley-Davidson v. Central York Sch District et al" on Justia Law

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The Third Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question of Pennsylvania law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In August 2007, Appellee Wayne Harrison entered into a lease with Appellant Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation, per which Cabot obtained the exclusive right to explore oil-and-gas resources on Harrison's property. In exchange, the company agreed to pay an initial bonus plus a one-eighth royalty on oil or gas successfully produced from the land. Approximately halfway through the primary lease term, Harrison and his wife commenced a civil action against Cabot in a federal district court, seeking a declaration that the lease was invalid. The Harrisons alleged the company had fraudulently induced Mr. Harrison to enter into the lease via an agent's representation that Mr. Harrison would never receive any more than $100 per acre as a threshold bonus payment from a gas producing company. The Harrisons learned of other landowner-lessors receiving higher payments. The Pennsylvania Court accepted certification from the Third Circuit to address whether the primary term of an oil-and-gas lease should have been equitably extended by the courts, where the lessor pursued an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the validity of the lease. In its counterclaim, Cabot sought a declaratory judgment that, in the event the Harrisons' suit failed, the primary term of the lease would be equitably tolled during the period of time during which the suit was pending, and, concomitantly, the lease would be extended for an equivalent period of time beyond what was provided by its actual terms. The district court awarded summary judgment in Cabot's favor on the suit to invalidate the lease. The court, however, resolved the counterclaim in the Harrisons' favor, concluding that Pennsylvania law does not provide for equitable extensions of oil and gas leases under the circumstances. Cabot appealed, arguing that it would be deprived of the full benefit of the bargained-for terms of its contract with the Harrisons by their "meritless lease challenges." Cabot contended Pennsylvania law provided that a party repudiates a contract, and thus effectuates an essential breach, when he makes an unequivocal statement that he will not perform in accordance with his agreement. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed with Cabot's contention, holding that the Harrisons' lease challenge was not an anticipatory breach of the lease. "Our reluctance, in this respect, is bolstered by the Harrisons' observation that oil-and-gas-producing companies are free to proceed according to their own devices to negotiate express tolling provisions for inclusion in their leases. [. . .] Certainly, in light of the voluminous decisional law, such companies are on sufficient notice of the prospect for validity challenges to warrant their consideration of such protective measures. [ . . .] Our determination is only that, consistent with the prevailing substantive law of this Commonwealth, the mere pursuit of declaratory relief challenging the validity of a lease does not amount to such." View "Harrison v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp." on Justia Law

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On Friday, January 9, 2009, after business hours, an unidentified motor vehicle crashed into and felled a utility pole carrying electric lines owned and operated by Duquesne Light. Several wires were connected to Burton L. Hirsh’s Funeral Home, and at least one was stripped from the attachment point to the building’s electrical system located on the structure. In addition to the funeral home, a number of other local buildings lost power as a result of the incident, although no structure other than Hirsh’s was connected directly to the downed pole. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review, as framed by appellant, was “[w]hether the Superior Court erred in imposing upon electric utilities a burdensome and unprecedented duty to enter customers’ premises and inspect customers’ electrical facilities before restoring power after an outage” The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court, finding that Duquesne Light failed to adequately confront the common-law duties invoked by Hirsh or the warnings dynamic tempering the Superior Court’s ruling. The Superior Court did not err to the extent that it recognized a duty, on the part of an electric service provider, to take reasonable measures to avert harm in a scenario in which the utility has actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition impacting a customer’s electrical system, occasioned by fallen and intermixed electrical lines proximate to the customer’s premises. The Court offered no opinion as to whether Duquesne Light had actual or constructive knowledge of an unreasonable risk in this scenario, since the electric company’s summary judgment effort was not staged in a manner which would have elicited an informed determination on such point. View "Alderwoods (PA), Inc. v. Duquesne Light" on Justia Law