Vol. 53, No. 2
Blanda v. Somerset County Board of Assessment Appeals, 2016 WL 56250 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016).
Assessment • Correction to Property’s Assessment Record
Commonwealth Court partially affirmed the trial court’s decision to correct a property assessment record to accurately reflect square footage.
The property in question includes 7.49 acres of land, a house in which the Blandas reside, and a rental lodge. In 2008, the property was assessed at $64,080, and was described as a single-story lodge with a living space of 2,206 square feet, a garage of 1,205 square feet, and a D-plus grading. In 2013, an employee at the Somerset County Assessment Office (AO) discovered a real estate advertisement listing the lodge’s living space at 4,400 square feet. This discrepancy led field workers to measure the Blandas’ lodge on-site, where they discovered that the lodge was two-and-one-half stories, the garage was 736 square feet, the listed number of bathrooms was incorrect, the actual living space was 4,272 square feet and the property’s accurate grading was a C-minus. Consequently, the Blandas’ property assessment increased to $86,440.
The Blandas appealed the AO’s assessment increase to the Somerset County Board of Assessment Appeals (BAA), which reduced the assessment to $85,910 based upon an error in the number of bathrooms. The Blandas appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County (trial court), arguing that the property had not undergone any improvements since the last county-wide assessment in 2008. The trial court affirmed the corrected assessment.
On appeal, the Blandas argued that the AO’s reassessment amounted to unlawful spot reassessment – “the reassessment of a property or properties … that is not conducted as part of a countywide revision of assessment and which creates, sustains or increases disproportionality among properties’ assessed values,” – and the AO’s method of reassessment constituted an improper, de facto county-wide assessment.
Commonwealth Court found that the trial court had not erred in correcting the property’s assessment record to reflect the current square footage of the Blandas’ lodge. To maintain uniformity of assessments throughout each county, an AO may reassess property beyond a county-wide assessment to correct erroneous and improper assessments that result from a mathematical or clerical error. The court found that the AO had correctly readjusted the Blandas’ property assessment because of the discrepancy in the lodge’s listed features. The court also opined that the AO’s practice of searching the Internet and checking newspapers and real estate guides to correct errors in existing property assessments is not a de facto county-wide reassessment.
Additionally, Commonwealth Court held that the trial court erred in allowing the AO to change the grade of the property when the change did not amount to a mathematical or clerical correction to the record. Because the trial court erred in permitting this change to alter the property’s assessment value, Commonwealth Court remanded the case to the trial court, so the court can adjust the property’s value accordingly.
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Bristol Township School District v. Z.B., 2016 WL 161600 (E.D. Pa. 2016).
In this case involving a challenge to a manifestation determination, the district court affirmed the hearing officer’s finding that the manifestation determination was deficient and order that the school district conduct a second manifestation determination.
On March 17, 2015, Z.B., a high school student eligible for special education because of severe Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), allegedly assaulted a teacher in the hallway during a passing period. Numerous witnesses provided different accounts. The district suspended Z.B., pending further proceedings. The district planned to hold a combined manifestation determination and informal hearing, but the district delayed notice, so both had to be rescheduled for a later date. The district held the manifestation determination a few weeks before the informal hearing. By the time the district held the informal hearing, Z.B. had been excluded from school for 15 days.
Pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), within 10 days of a decision to change the placement of a student with a disability, a manifestation determination team must determine whether the misconduct was (1) caused by the student’s disability or had a direct and substantial relationship to the student’s disability or (2) the direct result of the failure to implement the Individualized Education Program (IEP). Here, the team, which included Z.B., his parents, a school psychologist, two teachers, and a special education supervisor, met on March 31, 2015. Prior to the meeting, the special education supervisor, Dr. Newsham, pre-printed comments on the manifestation determination worksheet in the section labeled “Description of behavior subject to disciplinary action” and she also checked “No” for the ultimate determination that the behavior subject to disciplinary action was not a manifestation of the student’s disability. For the description of the behavior, Dr. Newsham typed that “Z.B. was suspended for ‘assault’ and ‘refused directive’ and that the teacher ‘sustained injuries.’” The team concluded that Z.B.’s conduct was not the result of his disability. His parents challenged this determination by filing a due process complaint against the district.
In the meantime, on April 8, 2015, the special education director held an informal hearing; ultimately, referring the matter to the school board for an expulsion hearing.
In finding the manifestation determination deficient, the hearing officer found fault with the team basing the determination on the “broad, general determination that [Z.B.’s] conduct in this case did not fit within the general characteristics/usual symptoms of ADHD” rather than basing the determination on the specific circumstances and whether the alleged conduct arose from his particular disability. The court concluded the hearing officer did not err in finding that the manifestation determination was deficient.
The district argued that the hearing officer improperly interjected herself into the disciplinary process. In determining that the hearing officer did not act outside the bounds of her authority, the court recognized that the hearing officer evaluated the district’s investigation into the incident, since specific information on the conduct is necessary for the team to conduct a manifestation determination that comports with the law.
Furthermore, the court did not see a problem with the hearing officer ordering the district to conduct a second manifestation determination or awarding compensatory education for the days he was excluded from school, beyond the first ten days.
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Kazimer v. Methacton School District, No. 760 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016). OPINION NOT REPORTED.
IMMUNITY/SUITS AGAINST LOCAL AGENCIES
Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PSTCA) • Real Property Exception
Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s order, granting the school district’s motion for summary judgement in this case involving allegations of negligence.
The 78-year-old plaintiff, William B. Kazimer, stumbled while exiting from the left side of the stage at the intermediate school’s auditorium. Plaintiff did not fall to the floor because another man caught him; nonetheless, he did sustain injuries.
Consequently, plaintiff filed a negligence complaint against the district. At the close of discovery, the district filed a motion for summary judgment, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the district, and the plaintiff appealed.
The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PSTCA) generally provides that a school district cannot be held liable for damages stemming from an injury to a person caused by an act of the district or its employees, with certain exceptions. A school district can be held liable for damages stemming from: “The care, custody or control of real property …” Here, the steps fall within the real property exception to the PSTCA because the steps were permanently affixed to the floor and the stage.
For the exception to apply, the plaintiff must prove the injury was caused by a negligent act. A possessor of “real property must use reasonable care to make the premises safe or warn the invitee of dangerous conditions of the real property.” To prove a breach of a duty of care, the plaintiff must prove “that the condition causing injury must be such that the possessor of land should expect that an invitee will not discover or realize the danger or will fail to protect himself from it.” Plaintiff claimed that the lack of handrails, slip or skid resistant material on the steps, and warning signs constituted a dangerous condition. However, plaintiff ascended an identical stairway on the right side of the stage without incident. The court concluded the allegedly dangerous conditions are plain to everyone; thus, plaintiff failed to establish a breach of the duty of care. Plaintiff also failed to present sufficient evidence of either a structural defect or negligent maintenance or that defendants had notice of any defective or dangerous conditions. To the contrary, both the facilities supervisor and head custodian testified that they did not recall any complaints or issues regarding the stairs.
Discerning no error in the trial court’s determination that no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether an unsafe, defective or dangerous condition of the district’s real property caused plaintiff’s stumble, the court affirmed the trial court’s order.
Editor’s Note: Unreported decisions of the Commonwealth Court are not intended to have precedential value, but may be cited in legal proceedings for persuasive value.
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Manheim Central Education Association v. Manheim Central School District
William E. Caldwell, arbitrator
Dec. 30, 2015
2. PAST PRACTICE
The arbitrator denied the grievance regarding the payment of disability benefits after an employee had exhausted their sick leave. The association asserted the district violated the collective bargaining agreement because the district limited payment of benefits specifically to the payment of an income protection benefit with the employee paying for the remainder of their benefits. The arbitrator concluded that because the collective bargaining agreement made reference only to the benefits found in a specific section of the agreement and the district had established a past practice limiting the payment of benefits to income protection, there was no violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
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Pennsylvania Legal Services Team Update
PSBA’s annual Spring Legal Roundup
workshop is being offered at locations throughout Pennsylvania in March, April and May. The workshop provides important updates on significant developments in school law over the last year and is presented by a local solicitor and a PSBA attorney. Spring Legal Roundup offers three substantive CLE credits. This year’s program will focus on a range of legal issues including:
- Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)
- Employee discipline and termination
- Handling difficult parents and citizens in the school setting
- Transgender students
- Child abuse and criminal background checks
- Right-to-Know Law
- Other issues which may arise prior to this program
Registration information and a complete list of dates and locations can be found here
Mark Your Calendars
January 2016-February 2016 – New School Director Training, various locations
March-May 2016 – Spring Legal Roundup, various locations
July 14-15, 2016 – Solicitors’ Symposium, State College, PA
Thursday, Oct. 14, 2016 – School Law Workshop, Hershey, PA
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School Board Solicitors Association Officers
Legal Services Team:
Carl N. Moore Esq., Erie, President
Patrick J. Fanelli Esq., Duncansville, President-Elect
Erin D. Gilsbach Esq., Bethlehem, Secretary
Kristine Marakovits-Roddick Esq., Bethlehem, Immediate Past President
Stuart L. Knade, General Counsel
Emily J. Leader, Senior Deputy General Counsel
Sean A. Fields, Deputy General Counsel, Government Affairs
Katherine M. Fitz-Patrick, Deputy General Counsel, Member Services