Jurisdiction; Landlord Tenant Dispute without a Lease

Assouline v. Reynolds, 184 A.3d 970 (Pa. Super. 2018), allocatur granted Jan. 29, 2019, appeal docket 5 WAP 2019

After Jacqueline and Charles Reynolds (the Reynolds) failed to pay real estate taxes for 14 years on their residential property in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, the property was sold to Nissim Assouline at a sheriff’s sale on May 4, 2015. The Reynolds filed a petition to set aside the sheriff’s sale with the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, but were denied relief by the trial court. The Commonwealth Court affirmed that decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied further review, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. In 2017, Assouline filed an eviction action with the Bethel Park Magisterial District Judge in Allegheny County, in an attempt to remove the Reynolds from the property which Assouline purchased. The magisterial district judge ruled in favor of Assouline and entered an order for his possession of the residence, as well as a judgment in the amount of $12,202.85, representing $12,000 for rent in arrears and $202.85 for filing fees.

The Reynolds appealed to the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, alleging the magisterial district judge lacked subject matter jurisdiction to resolve the dispute. More specifically, they claim that there was no lease agreement or landlord/tenant relationship between the parties and, therefore, the magisterial district judge lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain an eviction proceeding. On May 2, 2017, the trial court denied relief to the Reynolds, finding the magisterial district judge does have subject matter jurisdiction in this case. The Reynolds appealed to the Superior Court, and the Superior Court affirmed.

The Judicial Codeprovides a list of circumstances in which magisterial district judges shall have subject matter jurisdiction, including:

(2) Matters arising under the act of April 6, 1951 (P.L. 69, No.20), known as The Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951, which are stated therein to be within the jurisdiction of a magisterial district judge.

(3) Civil claims, except claims against a Commonwealth party as defined by section 8501 (relating to definitions), wherein the sum demanded does not exceed $12,000, exclusive of interest and costs, in the following classes of actions:

(i) In assumpsit, except cases of real contract where the title to real estate may be in question.

(ii) In trespass, including all forms of trespass and trespass on the case.

(iii) For fines and penalties by any government agency.

42 Pa. C.S. § 1515(a)(2), (3).

The Reynolds’ main argument is that the statute which confers subject matter jurisdiction upon a magisterial district judge, 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 1515, provides no provision for entertaining actions of ejectment. “[Assouline] is not a landlord, [Appellants] are not tenants, and this case does not fall within the scope of the Landlord Tenant Act.” Slip. Op. at 3, quoting Appellants Brief. The Reynolds also argue that magisterial district judges have been denied the authority to try any question “directly concerning title to land.” Slip. Op. at 3. Effectively, the Reynolds arguedthat the magisterial district judge had no jurisdiction to entertain an ejectment action, and the action should have been brought in the Common Pleas Court.

The Superior Court directly rejected the suggestion that the magisterial district judge was deciding which party had proper title over the subject property. “Here, the issue of title has been fully litigated and it was determined that Assouline was the rightful owner of the subject property via sheriff sale. See Bethel Park School Dist. v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 3196682 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016), appeal denied, Bethel Park School Dist. v. Reynolds, 164 A.3d 454 (Pa. 2016); Reynolds v. Bethel Park School Dist., 138 S.Ct. 109 (2017).” Slip Op. at 4.

As to ejectment, the court looked to the plain language of the statute setting forth subject matter jurisdiction for magisterial district judges. The Superior Court noted, “[d]espite Appellants’ claim that this case does not fall within the scope of the Landlord Tenant Act, under that Act, ‘any person who acquires title to real property by descent or purchase shall be liable to the same duties and shall have the same rights, powers and remedies in relation to the property as the person from whom title was acquired.’ 68 P.S. § 250.104.” Slip Op. at 6. As to rent, the court quoted Section 250.304 of the Act: “[i]n the case of a tenant whose right of possession is not paramount to that of the purchaser at a sheriff’s or other judicial sale, the latter shall have the right as a landlord to collect by assumpsit or to distrain for rent from the date of the acknowledgment of his deed[.]” 68 P.S. § 250.304.The court also acknowledged the concepts of unjust enrichment and the fact that “‘[e]jectment is a possessory action only, and can succeed only if the plaintiff is out of possession, and he has a present right to immediate possession.’ Croyle v. Dellape, 832 A.2d 466, 476 (Pa. Super. 2003).”

Taking all of these legal concepts together, the Superior Court agreed with the trial court that a magisterial district judge had subject matter jurisdiction under the Landlord Tenant Act and42 Pa. C.S.A. § 1515(a)(2). Assouline had previously been determined to have proper title over the property, and therefore he has the right to possession. The Reynolds, then, were unjustly enriched when they continued to live on the property without paying compensation to Assouline. Thus, the court found there was a contract implied in fact and Assouline was permitted to file an action for ejectment and rental arrears in the magisterial district court, in the same way a landlord would seek recovery.

Finally, the court found the statute codified at 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 1515(a)(3)(ii) clearly states magisterial district judges have jurisdiction over civil claims under $12,000.00, involving all forms of trespass. “Because a magisterial district judge has subject matter jurisdiction over all actions of trespass, including situations such as this, where Appellants remained on the land that was held in possession of another,” the trial court was correct in its finding that the magisterial district judge in Bethel Park exercised proper jurisdiction.

The issue the Supreme Court will decide, as stated by the Court in its grant of appeal, is:

Whether the Superior Court erred in determining that the magisterial district court had subject matter jurisdiction where the Appellee filed a landlord tenant action but there was no landlord and no lease.

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.