Public-purpose Condemnation; Adverse Possession

City of Phila. v. Galdo, 181 A.3d 1289 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018), allocatur granted Oct. 2, 2018, appeal docket 36 EAP 2018

In 1974, Philadelphia condemned a Property to reroute a train line in connection with a 1962 agreement with the Commonwealth to assist in the development of state roads.  In 1976, the Commonwealth condemned the Property and other land, indicating it would permanently retain the land in the I-95 right-of-way and have a temporary easement on the Property for the train rerouting period.  The City did not physically occupy or provide any maintenance of the Property since the late 1970s.

In 1989, Galdo bought his home on the street across from the Property.  He then began using a portion of the Property known as the Galdo Parcel.  Galdo used the Galdo Parcel in a variety of ways, including for storage, parties, and parking. He made various improvements or alterations to the Galdo Parcel, including, but not limited to, pouring concrete slabs, installing and (later) removing a fence, installing two large trailers for storage, building a fire pit/brick barbeque and pavilion, and creating a volleyball court, horseshoe pits, and treehouse.

On February 5, 2013, the City posted a public notice on the Property, notifying the public to remove all personal property within 30 days. Galdo refused to comply with the notices and removed them. The City filed its ejectment action on April 24, 2014. Galdo responded with a counterclaim to quiet title, claiming ownership by adverse possession.

The trial court found in favor of the City.  It held Galdo could not claim title to the Property because the City condemned it at the behest of the Commonwealth and claims of adverse possession cannot lie against the Commonwealth or its agents.  The trial court also held that Galdo could not sustain a claim for adverse possession against the City because the Property was devoted to public use.

Judge Brobson accompanied by Judge Wojcik reversed.  Judge Brobson reasoned that the doctrine of nullum tempus occurrit regi (time does not run against the king) only applies to the Commonwealth, not political subdivisions, relying on Evans v. Erie County, 66 Pa. 222 (Pa. 1870).  Judge Brobson explained the trial court’s reliance on Torch v. Constantino, 323 A.2d 278, 279 (Pa. Super. 1974) and Lysicki v. Montour School District, 701 A.2d 630 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997) for the proposition that political subdivisions are immune from adverse possession claims was misplaced. In Torch, the county held the property in question for public use because the county was holding it as a trustee for a tax sale.  In Lysicki, the property was held by a school district to fulfill the Commonwealth’s responsibility for public education, and thus the school district fell under the Commonwealth’s protection from claims of title by adverse possession.  Neither of those scenarios were applicable here because there was no legal obligation for the City to hold the Property for public use or for the Commonwealth’s use.  The court remanded for the trial court to determine whether Galdo met the elements of adverse possession.

Judge Pellegrini dissented.  He reasoned that like Torch, the Property was held for a public purpose – to offset governmental expenses and restore real estate to the City’s tax assessment list upon sale.  He described the rule as condemned property is immune from adverse possession so long as it is always retained for eventual disposition.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur on the following issue:

Was President Judge Pellegrini correct in dissent that the Commonwealth Court Majority’s conclusion – that the property here, acquired by the City through a public-purpose condemnation designed to assist the Commonwealth with the construction of I-95, and then held for subsequent resale, was subject to adverse possession – was mistaken and in conflict with Superior Court precedent?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.