Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
Bindas. v. PennDOT
In 2015, the Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) began constructing a diamond interchange and installing a drainage system on property abutting Interstate 70 (“I-70”) in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The property’s owner, Appellant Donald Bindas, petitioned for the appointment of a board of viewers, seeking compensation for this encumbrance upon his land. PennDOT asserted that its predecessor, the Department of Highways (“DOH”), had secured a highway easement for the land in question in 1958. Both the trial court and the Commonwealth Court agreed, dismissing Bindas’ suit. Upon its review of the statutory authority that PennDOT invoked, as well as the record, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that DOH’s failure to comply with the requirements of 36 P.S. § 670-210 rendered that easement invalid. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order, and remanded with the instruction that PennDOT’s preliminary objections be overruled. View "Bindas. v. PennDOT" on Justia Law
Brown v. Oil City, et al.
By 2011, due to weathering and aging, the condition of the concrete stairs leading to the entrance of the Oil City Library (the “library”) had significantly declined. Oil City contracted with Appellants Harold Best and Struxures, LLC, to develop plans for the reconstruction of the stairs and to oversee the implementation of those design plans. The actual reconstruction work was performed by Appellant Fred Burns, Inc., pursuant to a contract with Oil City (appellants collectively referred to as “Contractors”). Contractors finished performing installation work on the stairs by the end of 2011. In early 2012, Oil City began to receive reports about imperfections in the concrete surface, which also began to degrade. In September 2013, Oil City informed Burns of what it considered to be its defective workmanship in creating the dangerous condition of the stairs. Between February 28, 2012 and November 23, 2015, the condition of the stairs continued to worsen; however, neither Oil City nor Contractors made any efforts to repair the stairs, or to warn the public about their dangerous condition. In 2015, Appellee David Brown (“Brown”) and his wife Kathryn exited the library and began to walk down the concrete stairs. While doing so, Kathryn tripped on one of the deteriorated sections, which caused her to fall and strike her head, suffering a traumatic head injury. Tragically, this injury claimed her life six days later. Brown, in his individual capacity and as the executor of his wife’s estate, commenced a wrongful death suit, asserting negligence claims against Oil City, as owner of the library, as well as Contractors who performed the work on the stairs pursuant to their contract with Oil City. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether Section 385 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts imposed liability on a contractor to a third party whenever the contractor, during the course of his work for a possessor of land, creates a dangerous condition on the land that injures the third party, even though, at the time of the injury, the contractor was no longer in possession of the land, and the possessor was aware of the dangerous condition. To this, the Court concluded, as did the Commonwealth Court below, that a contractor may be subjected to liability under Section 385 in such circumstances. View "Brown v. Oil City, et al." on Justia Law
Shrom, et al v PA Underground Storage Tank
This appeal concerned whether Dr. Timothy Shrom and Debra Shrom were eligible under the Pennsylvania Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act (Act) for payment from the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund (Fund) for costs they incurred in remediating contamination caused by fuel releases from underground storage tanks (USTs or tanks) located on their property. The Fund concluded, and the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Board (Board) ultimately agreed, that the Shroms were ineligible for such payment because the subject USTs were not registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as required by Section 503 of the Act and the registration fees were not paid at the time of the fuel releases that gave rise to the Shroms’ claim for remediation costs. The Commonwealth Court reversed the Board’s decision on appeal, concluding that: (1) the Shroms were eligible to receive payment from the Fund for remediation costs under the Act; (2) the Board’s holding relative to the timing of the payment of the Section 503 registration fees constituted an unlawful de facto regulation; and (3) contrary to the Board’s finding, payment of the Shroms’ claim did not appear to pose any imminent risk to the Fund’s solvency. Finding no error in the Commonwealth Court’s decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. View "Shrom, et al v PA Underground Storage Tank" on Justia Law
PA Enviro Defense Fdn, Aplt. v. Commonwealth
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) challenged for the third time, the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In previous trips before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, PEDF challenged several 2009-2025 budgetary provisions enacted challenging the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In the first two cases, PEDF challenged several 2009-2015 budgetary provisions enacted in the wake of dramatic increases in oil and gas revenue resulting from Marcellus Shale exploration in Pennsylvania. Applying trust principles, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the budgetary provisions violated Section 27 by utilizing the oil and gas revenue for non-trust purposes via transfers to the General Fund. PEDF v. Commonwealth, 161 A.3d 911 (Pa. 2017) (“PEDF II”); PEDF v. Commonwealth, 255 A.3d 289 (Pa. 2021) (“PEDF V”). The underlying case here was one for a declaratory judgment, and named the Commonwealth and Governor as parties. Here, PEDF raised numerous constitutional challenges to provisions of the General Appropriations Act of 2017 and 2018, as well as the 2017 Fiscal Code amendments, all of which were enacted after the Supreme Court’s decision in PEDF II. After review , the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court, whilst rejecting that court;s analysis derived from PEDF III. View "PA Enviro Defense Fdn, Aplt. v. Commonwealth" on Justia Law
Albrecht, et al. v. UGI Storage Co. et al.
In consolidated appeals, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on the Commonwealth Court’s holding that, to be held liable for damages under Pennsylvania’s inverse condemnation statute, an entity had to be "clothed with the power of eminent domain" to the property at issue. In 2009, Appellee, UGI Storage Company filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (the “Commission” or “FERC”), seeking a certificate of public convenience and necessity to enable it to acquire and operate certain natural gas facilities. Appellee wished to acquire and operate underground natural gas storage facilities, which the company referred to as the Meeker storage field. Appellee also sought to include within the certificated facilities a 2,980-acre proposed "buffer zone." FERC ultimately granted the application for Appellee to acquire and assume the operation of the Meeker storage field, but denied Appellee’s request to certificate the buffer zone. Appellants petitioned for the appointment of a board of viewers to assess damages for an alleged de facto condemnation of their property, alleging that though their properties had been excluded by FERC from the certificated buffer zone, they interpreted Appellee’s response to the Commission’s order as signaling its intention to apply for additional certifications to obtain property rights relative to the entire buffer zone. The common pleas court initially found that a de facto taking had occurred and appointed a board of viewers to assess damages. Appellee lodged preliminary objections asserting Appellants’ petition was insufficient to support a de facto taking claim. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court: "we do not presently discern a constitutional requirement that a quasi-public entity alleged to have invoked governmental power to deprive landowners of the use and enjoyment of their property for a public purpose must be invested with a power of eminent domain in order to be held to account for a de facto condemnation. ... a public or quasi-public entity need not possess a property-specific power of eminent domain in order to implicate inverse condemnation principles." The case was remanded for the Commonwealth Court to address Appellants’ challenge to the common pleas court’s alternative disposition (based upon the landowners’ purported off-the-record waiver of any entitlement to an evidentiary hearing), which had been obviated by the intermediate court’s initial remand decision and that court’s ensuing affirmance of the re-dismissal of Appellants’ petitions. View "Albrecht, et al. v. UGI Storage Co. et al." on Justia Law
Apt. Assoc. of Metro Pittsburgh v. City of Pittsburgh
In 2015, Pittsburgh City Council passed Ordinance 2015-2062. The Ordinance supplemented Section 659.03 of the Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances, which already barred various forms of discrimination in housing. In early 2016, the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh (“the Association”), a nonprofit corporation comprising over 200 residential property owners, managers, and landlords, filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas a Complaint for Equitable Relief and Request for Declaratory Judgment against the City, alleging that the Nondiscrimination Ordinance violated the Home Rule Charter ("HRC") and the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Association also sought a temporary stay of enforcement of the Ordinance, which the court granted. The parties submitted Stipulations of Fact and submitted the case for judgment on the pleadings (the City) or summary judgment (the Association). The trial court heard argument, and ultimately ruled in favor of the Association, declaring the Ordinance invalid. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the HRC’s Business Exclusion precluded the Pittsburgh ordinance that proscribed source-of-income discrimination in various housing-related contexts. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s entry of judgment in favor of Apartment Association. View "Apt. Assoc. of Metro Pittsburgh v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law
Terra Firma Builders, LLC v. King, et al..
Appellants William "Billy" King, and Melanie (Frantz) King ("the Kings"), hired appellee Terra Firma Builders, LLC ("TF") to perform construction work in the backyard of their home. In December 2012, TF was removed from the project before completion due to a dispute about the work performed up to that point. In 2013, TF filed two lawsuits for breach of contract and unjust enrichment, a mechanics’ lien claim for alleged unpaid labor and materials. TF effectuated service of the mechanics’ lien on the Kings by sheriff, however a month later, TF withdrew the lien and filed a new one for the same amount of the discontinued lien; this lien was assigned a new docket number. TF did not file the required affidavit of service for this lien claim. The Kings answered the suit with their own counterclaim alleging breach of contract; they did not challenge TF’s failure to file an affidavit of service at this time. In 2015, TF sought to enforce and obtain judgment on its lien. The Kings did not file preliminary objections or otherwise raise TF’s failure to file an affidavit of service at this time. In 2017, the trial court consolidated TF’s mechanics’ lien and breach of contract actions and proceeded to a bench trial. The parties agreed that TF failed to complete the project but disputed the amount of work remaining unfinished and the quality of the work completed. The court ultimately found in favor of the Kings on all claims, including the Kings’ counterclaim, and awarded the Kings monetary damages. TF moved for a new trial, which was ultimately granted. At the conclusion of the second trial, the court again found in favor of the Kings on the merits, but did not award damages. In 2018, while the post-trial motions were pending, the Kings moved to strike the mechanics’ lien because TF’ failed to file an affidavit of service to perfect the lien. TF argued the Kings had waived their right to object to the lien when they accepted service of the complaint to enforce, never filed preliminary objections, and appeared in court to defend the action. The trial court granted the petition to strike. On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the Superior Court reversed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding the lien remained unperfected and invalid, "and the applicable statutes quite logically do not specify a time limit for objection to such a thing." View "Terra Firma Builders, LLC v. King, et al.." on Justia Law
SLT Holdings v. Mitch-Well Energy
Eleanor McLaughlin acquired all oil, gas, and mineral rights underlying two parcels in Watson Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania. In 1985, she leased the oil and gas rights for each parcel to United Land Services. United Land Services in turn assigned the leases to Appellant Mitch-Well Energy, Inc. In 2008, Jack and Zureya McLaughlin sold their interest in the Warrant 3010 to Sheffield Land and Timber Company, which merged into Appellee SLT Holdings, LLC in 2012. During the initial term of the leases, Mitch-Well drilled one well on each lease parcel and produced oil in paying quantities until 1996. Mitch-Well did not drill any additional wells. After 1996, no oil was produced or royalty payments, or delay rental payments made or tendered until 2013. Nor did Mitch-Well tender any minimum payments during that period under either lease. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to consider the propriety of the Superior Court’s affirmance of the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment in favor of Appellees in their complaint in equity against Appellant on the grounds of abandonment. Because Appellees had available to them a full and adequate remedy at law, through contract principles generally applicable to oil and gas leases, and through the specific provisions of the subject leases, the Supreme Court concluded it was error to provide recourse through application of the equitable doctrine of abandonment. View "SLT Holdings v. Mitch-Well Energy" on Justia Law
In Re: Appeal of Coatesville Area Sch Dist
Two taxing districts undertook parallel challenges to a property’s partial tax exemption. Appellee Huston Properties, Inc. (“Taxpayer”), owned the subject property (the “Property”). In 2013, Taxpayer, claiming to be a charitable institution, sought tax-exempt status for the Property for the 2014 tax year. After a hearing, the Chester County Board of Assessment Appeals granted a partial exemption, reasoning that that portion of the Property was used for charitable purposes. The City of Coatesville appealed that decision to the Court of Common Pleas. Six days later, the Coatesville Area School District, another taxing authority encompassing the Property, lodged its own appeal, also challenging the Property’s partially-tax-exempt status. The School District also intervened in the City's case. Ultimately, the trial court affirmed the Board's grant of a partial exemption. Both the City and the School District appealed to the Commonwealth Court, and Taxpayer cross-appealed as to each, seeking fully-exempt status for the Property. In a memorandum decision, the Commonwealth Court vacated and remanded to the trial court for more specific findings to support the partial tax exemption. On remand, the trial court set forth particularized findings and conclusions, and re-affirmed its earlier decision assessing the Property. At this juncture, the City elected not to appeal to the Commonwealth Court. The School District appealed the ruling in its own case, but it did not appeal the identical, simultaneous ruling which contained the City’s docket number. Taxpayer moved to quash the School District’s appeal. The Commonwealth Court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal observing that the common pleas court’s ruling in the City’s case became final after no party appealed it. Because the School District had intervened in that matter, it was a party to those proceedings. With that premise, the court found that res judicata and collateral estoppel barred it from reaching the merits. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that issue preclusion under the rubric of collateral estoppel should not have been applied to defeat the School District’s ability to obtain merits review of its substantive arguments in the intermediate court. The Commonwealth Court's judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for a merits disposition of the consolidated cross-appeals. View "In Re: Appeal of Coatesville Area Sch Dist" on Justia Law
In Re: Consol Apl of Chester-Upland SD, et al –
The appellant property owners (“Taxpayers”) allowed billboards to be placed their lands. The appellee local taxing authorities, Chester-Upland School District and Chichester School District (the “School Districts”), filed 22 assessment appeals relating to the subject properties for tax years 2014 and forward. In their appeals, the School Districts sought to increase the assessed value based on the presence of the billboards. After relief was denied by the county assessment board, the School Districts appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. Separately, four property owners also appealed to that court after their properties were reassessed due to the presence of billboards. The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the presence of a billboard on a property could affect the valuation of that property, such as where the landowner was entitled to ongoing payments pursuant to a lease with the billboard company. The Supreme Court found the Pennsylvania General Assembly has directed that billboards and their supporting structures were not real estate for tax assessment purposes. Here, the Court concluded the Commonwealth Court appropriately concluded that, although a billboard’s value may not itself be considered when assessing the underlying real property’s value, any increase in such value attributable to the billboard’s presence could be considered. View "In Re: Consol Apl of Chester-Upland SD, et al -" on Justia Law