Thursday, September 20, 2012

Does a Local Ordinance Violate the Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Act?

Berwick Area Landlord Association, et. al v. Borough of Berwick, 2012 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 187 (2012)
Frank Kosir, Jr., Esquire
This matter addressed the issue of whether a local ordinance requiring the registration of residential landlords and properties within a borough violated the Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Act, or other applicable state and federal statutes.  In April, 2007, the Borough of Berwick (“Borough”) enacted a detailed ordinance (“Ordinance”) requiring all rental units within the Borough to be registered, licensed and maintained in accordance with certain specific standards.  The Ordinance set forth a series of obligations binding upon landlords and tenants, established fines and other penalties that could be assessed for violations thereof, and vested the Borough with the authority to enter and inspect any rental premises.  Following the enactment of the Ordinance, the Berwick Area Landlord Association and the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association  (“Associations”) brought a declaratory judgment action in the Columbia County Court of Common Pleas seeking the invalidation of the Ordinance.  In support of their claims for relief the Associations alleged, inter alia, that the Ordinance was preempted by the Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Act, and that it violated property owners’ substantive due process rights under Article I, Section I of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  The trial court concluded that the Ordinance was not preempted by the Landlord Tenant Act and, after a rational basis review, also found that the Ordinance did not violate landlords’ substantive due process rights, dismissing the Associations’ action with prejudice. 
On appeal, our Commonwealth Court affirmed.  In issuing its ruling, the court noted that the purpose of the Ordinance was “to protect and promote the public health, safety and welfare,” and was the result of an ever-increasing number of rental properties in the Borough being owned by absentee landlords who did not take the actions necessary to ensure that their properties were adequately maintained. With regard to the Associations’ preemption claims the court concluded that, in order for a particular statute or act to preempt a field of law, that statute or act must specifically state that local legislation in that field of law is forbidden, or indicate that local supplementation is not permitted.  In this instance, a review of the Landlord Tenant Act finds no language indicating that it preempts local legislation on landlord/tenant issues, or that it precludes local supplementation of its provisions.  As such, the Landlord Tenant Act permits a local municipal government to use its police powers to enact laws regulating landlord and tenant obligations, so long as those laws do not conflict with the Act.  Therefore, as there was no provision in the Ordinance that conflicted with the Act, the Ordinance was properly sustained.  With regard to the Associations’ constitutional claims, the court rejected the assertion that trial court erred in failing to subject the Ordinance to strict scrutiny review concluding that, as a local law designed to ensure safe, healthy and habitable rental dwellings, it falls within the Borough’s police powers, and was properly subjected to a rational basis review.

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