$20 Million Fund to Benefit Estates of Deceased PA Property Owners
[Warrington, PA] [August 29, 2016] — The following is being released by Stern & Eisenberg, PC and Kramer & Kramer LLP in relation to the litigation Muscarella v. Commonwealth.
On August 2, 2016, the Commonwealth Court approved a settlement whereby Pennsylvania created a $20 Million class fund. The fund is to be used to pay real estate tax rebates to the estates of certain deceased Pennsylvania homeowners under the Senior Citizens Property Tax and Rent Rebate Assistance Act. This settlement was the result of six years of litigation in the case of Muscarella v. Commonwealth, Commonwealth Court 10 F.R. 2011.
Previously precluded by regulation, estates of decedents can now claim rebates from the class fund if they died in the years 2004-2009 and paid their real estate property taxes in the year of death and received a property tax rebate in the year before death. Class counsel, Richard Stern, said that claims could range up to $975 per decedent, with an average of approximately $400. He stated that he anticipated that all valid claims will be paid.
A website has been set up www.PARebateSettlement.com for those affected to obtain a form to file a claim. Inquiries can be addressed to Muscarella@sterneisenberg.com or 215-710-0407. The settlement amount of $20 Million will be used to pay qualified claimants as well as class counsels’ attorneys’ fees and expenses and a payment to the class representative. Stern said that if after all claims, fees, and costs are paid in full, unnecessary funds are left over, they will be returned to the Commonwealth.
The case has had a long history. Josephine Carbo paid her property taxes in the year 2009 and passed away in November of that year. She had filed a claim for a rebate in the year 2008 and in prior years. The executor of her estate, on behalf of the estate and all other similar decedents, filed a class claim for a rebate with the Department of Revenue. The regulations governing the Act precluded estates from filing for a rebate for the year of death unless the decedent survived for the entire year. The claim was denied. An appeal was taken to the Board of Appeals, which denied the appeal. A further appeal was taken to the Board of Finance and Revenue. That appeal was also denied. The estate then filed a petition for review with the Commonwealth Court seeking damages for the class. Soon after the filing, the executor filed a motion for class certification, which the Court granted, 39 A.3d 459 (2012).
Notice advising potential claimants of the case and their right to opt out of the class was given by publication, mail, and postings in registers of wills offices and on the Commonwealth’s websites. Approximately 50 opt outs were received. The parties engaged in discovery. The class then filed an application for judgment on liability only, and the Commonwealth filed a cross application for judgment. The Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the class on liability and declared the regulation, the claim form and the instructions, relating to survival for the entire year, unconstitutional and invalid, 87 A. 3d 966 (2014).
The claim procedure for the future has changed so that henceforth, decedents’ estates may obtain rebates for both renters and owners. The instructions governing estates and PA Form 1000 have been changed. To determine the amount of damages, the parties engaged experts who issued reports. There was additional protracted discovery, and the matter was to be tried in June, 2015. Trial was avoided when the parties entered into a settlement agreement which was preliminarily approved by the court. Petitions for final approval of the settlement and for counsel fees and costs were filed. A hearing for final approval was held on June 13, 2016. Notice thereof and the right to object was given by publication, on the Commonwealth’s websites and by mail. No one objected.
The claim filing deadline is March 2, 2017. Mr. Stern requested that members of the public, attorneys, accountants, and others in the Commonwealth reach out to their acquaintances, clients, and associates about this settlement so all potential claimants can get their claims paid. Claimants will not have to pay any Pennsylvania taxes on those payments.
Attorneys Richard F. Stern of Stern & Eisenberg of Warrington, PA and Mitchell A. Kramer of Kramer & Kramer of Rydal, PA, represent the class. The court’s decision awarding counsel fees stated: that there was no question class counsel expended considerable time and effort on the case to the benefit of the class which also benefited the public for future estates; that the quality of counsel was “excellent”; that the court “witnessed class counsel’s professionalism, skill, and hard work throughout this litigation”; that counsel took the case at great risk of not being paid; and that the case was “one of great magnitude and complexity.”
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