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Behe v. Chester County Bd. of Assessment Appeals

filed: December 23, 1991.

MICHAEL BEHE; MARK F. BRANCATO; FRANK HUSTED; JOSEPH J. KELLY; ROBERT J. LORENZ; EDWARD MORAN, JR.; JOHN C. THOMAS; DEBORAH L. THOMAS, H/W
v.
CHESTER COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSMENT APPEALS; COUNTY OF CHESTER; MICHAEL BEHE, MARK F. BRANCATO, FRANK HUSTED, JOSEPH J. KELLY, ROBERT LORENZ, EDWARD MORAN, JR., JOHN C. THOMAS AND DEBORAH L. THOMAS, H/W, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 90-01532)

Before: Becker, Greenberg and Garth, Circuit Judges

Author: Garth

Opinion OF THE COURT

GARTH, Circuit Judge :

On this appeal, we affirm the District Court's order which dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction the action brought by appellant homeowners against the County of Chester Board of Assessment Appeals. Because we conclude that the Tax Injunction Act bars federal jurisdiction over the homeowners claims, we affirm.

I.

The plaintiffs in this case, owners of recently built homes in Chester County, Pa. (" Homeowners "), brought a § 1983 suit in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging that Chester County and its Board of Assessment Appeals annually failed to revise property assessments as required by Pennsylvania law. This failure, Homeowners allege, creates two unfair results: first, the assessed values of newer properties - and the resultant property taxes that must be paid on those properties - are much higher than those of older properties. Second, as the property values of the older properties remain artificially deflated, the county is forced to hike everyone's property tax rate in order to collect enough money.

Homeowners claim that this alleged failure to reassess property values on an annual basis violated Homeowners' substantive due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution and also violated Homeowners' rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution, which requires that all taxes "be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax," and under the Third Class County Assessment Law, which requires annual assessments. Homeowners did not seek monetary relief, but rather a court order requiring Defendants to conduct the property tax assessments according to law.

The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The district court provided three reasons for the dismissal: first, the court held that under the Tax Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1341, taxpayers may not challenge the validity of a state tax system in federal court if the state could provide a "plain, speedy and efficient" remedy. Second, the district court held that the principle of comity barred the court from asserting jurisdiction. Third, the district court held that even if it did have jurisdiction over some of the claims brought by the Homeowners, it would decline to exercise such jurisdiction.

On appeal, Homeowners argue that there is no "plain, speedy and efficient remedy" for their claims in Pennsylvania state courts, and that therefore (1) their claims are not barred by the Tax Injunction Act; (2) their claims are not barred from federal court by principles of comity; and (3) the abstention doctrines do not apply.

At least four of the Homeowners have filed an almost identical action which is currently pending in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas. That action contests the alleged inequality of assessment of property in the county resulting from the county's failure to reassess annually properties in the county. (Brancato v. County of Chester, No. 91-00563; Thomas v. County of Chester, No. 91-3533).

II.

The Tax Injunction Act (the " Act ") provides that:

the district courts shall not enjoin, suspend, or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy ...


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