In Betters, et. al. v. Beaver County, 152 C.D. 2018 (12/18/18), the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that Beaver County’s (“County”) base-year method of property valuation violated the Uniformity Clause of Article VIII, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Consolidated Assessment law and mandated the County to complete a countywide reassessment by 2020. The County appealed the trial court’s order claiming that the trial court erred by refusing to exclude objected-to expert testimony and in determining that the Taxpayers were entitled to relief despite the fact they did not introduce any evidence that they have suffered a specific harm to their particular properties.
In December of 2015, a group of taxpayers (the “Taxpayers”) filed a complaint in mandamus to compel the County to perform a countywide reassessment. The Taxpayers alleged that the last countywide reassessment was in 1982, and that the County has been applying insufficient and outdated methods for valuing properties, which are grossly inequitable and non-uniform. During a nonjury trial, the Taxpayers offered testimony from two expert witnesses regarding expert conclusions pertaining to data that was compiled by two of their colleagues that did not testify. That data was used to determine that the County had a coefficient of dispersion of 34.5%, thus indicating that the system of tax assessment employed by the County was not uniform. The County and Green Township (“Township”) objected to the conclusions during trial arguing that they were hearsay because the data collectors did not testify and thus there was not a proper foundation for the expert’s conclusions. However, the trial court overruled the objections and ultimately found that the base-year method of valuation employed by the County violates the Uniformity Clause and the Assessment Law because it does not reflect, uniformly and accurately, the proper assessed values of the 96,000 parcels in the County.
At Commonwealth Court, the County argued that the trial court erred by admitting the expert conclusions into evidence over the County and Township’s objections because the facts upon which the expert relied were not articulated or made part of the record pursuant to Rule 705 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence. The Commonwealth Court noted that in Commonwealth v. Thomas, 282 A.2d 693 (Pa. 1971), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court permitted an exception to the rule allowing experts to rely upon reports of others not in evidence, i.e., inadmissible hearsay, provided the reports were of a type customarily relied on by the expert in the field in forming opinions. Additionally, the Commonwealth Court mentioned that Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence 104 allows the rules of evidence to not apply when the judge is the fact finder. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court determined that the trial court did not err or abuse its discretion by admitting the expert testimony over the objections because the County and Township chose not to subpoena the data gatherers and because the County offered no basis upon which to conclude that the data gathered and relied upon by the experts was unreliable.
The County also argued that the trial court erred by denying the County’s motions for nonsuit where the Taxpayers failed to introduce any evidence of a harm or damage personal to them. The Commonwealth Court quickly dispatched this argument by concluding that the Taxpayers here challenged the entire statutory scheme of valuation in the County as violative of the Uniformity Clause and thus under Clifton v. Allegheny County, 969 A.2d 1197 (Pa. 2009), evidence of a harm or damage personal to them was not required.
Please contact Paul Morcom (717-237-5364) or Randy Varner (717-237-5464) if you have any questions regarding this decision.