Don’t pay PLA for double dipping!
If you don’t recognize the name Portnoff Law Associates, abbreviated here as PLA, this discussion will be a crash course for you in how so many Wilkinsburg properties went “underwater” with total of tax liens exceeding the value of the property. Bear with me, though, because the large number of underwater properties has driven up the millage rates for the borough and school district. The large number of “nonperforming” properties increases the amount you pay if you pay real estate tax in Wilkinsburg.
PLA was the delinquent tax collector for the borough and school district from the late 1990s until this year. PLA filed legal documents necessary to get judgments against hundreds of owners of tax delinquent properties. The judgment is the first step in taking a property to tax sale if the judgment amount is not satisfied. PLA did not take the properties to sale, though. Most of them are still owned by owners who received demands for payment every year from PLA. PLA’s contracts with the borough and school district allowed that law firm to charge fees to each property on which a judgment was granted by the court– $150 “prepare writ of scire facias” (sci fa) then $150 “prepare default judgment” (most owners did not go to court to deny owing the tax, in which case judgment by default is entered for the plaintiff). Then $750 “prepare writ of execution” (WOE) meaning “execute on the judgment” by listing the property with the sheriff for tax sale.
Because the borough and school district were separate clients of PLA, PLA was able to attach legal fees all the way through WOE on a property for a borough tax lien, then abandon that course of action and, in a subsequent year, attach fees all the way through WOE on the same property for a school district tax lien. WOE, WOE. Not only does this burden the property with debt that a prospective new purchaser would be asked to pay, but a property that has two open writs of execution cannot go to tax sale. The property is stuck until there is further legal expense to remove the contest between the writs.
Why do we care? We care because PLA is claiming the attorney fees and court costs that have been attached to the properties as still owed to the law firm for its work for the borough and school district clients. PLA has tried to talk settlement of the total amounts to the borough — $4,130,590– and to the school district– $3,270,215. Another tack is a claim by PLA that the new delinquent tax collector, Maiello Brungo & Maiello (MBM), is responsible for collecting these fees and court costs along with the taxes owed to the borough and school district, and forwarding the amounts to PLA.
MBM noted in a list of “active sheriff’s sales” 33 properties with both school district and borough writs of execution. There are hundreds more properties that do have a default judgment on behalf of the borough and another on behalf of the school district, but may not have writs of execution.
Should PLA be entitled to collect for this double dipping? The legal “work” of getting a default judgment then abandoning action on that judgment to take the same fee-generating path on behalf of the other Wilkinsburg tax authority does not merit payment. The new collector should not be working to collect money to send to PLA for this.
Now its work here is done, PLA is asking for $7 million plus to be sent from Wilkinsburg to eastern Pennsylvania. Start reducing this claim by challenging payment for the double dipping! The borough solicitor represents the borough; the school district solicitor represents the school district. Who represents our real estate tax base that cannot bear the burden of PLA fees?
Note: One property that is not in the MBM list of 33 properties “WOE on both sides” is 232-R-124. The headers for the actions against this property indicate two default judgments, both on behalf of the school district, but one of those started as a “municipal lien.” Register for Civil Docket Access with the county Dept of Court Records to lookup the PLA double dipping on this property and others.