As you may be aware, it is common practice nationwide for a municipality to place a lien on real property where it has provided services that are not paid (example – water, sewer, trash). A federal court has ruled that without notice to the owner, a municipality cannot place a lien because it violates “due process” as required by the constitution (you know that rule that you’re entitled to notice and hearing before the government can take something from you).
A contentious collection process used by Philadelphia Gas Works has been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge after one customer got fed up and sued PGW.
Philadelphia landlord David Wolf, who we interviewed 3 years ago, launched a one-man fight against Philadelphia’s utility giant after he says they illegally placed liens on his property for gas he never used.
Now a judge ruled in his favor, stopping PGW’s collection process in its tracks.
“I’m outraged. That’s just putting it mildly,” said Wolf.
When we first met Wolf, the Philadelphia landlord was facing $30,000 in liens, placed on his properties by Philadelphia Gas Works.
Wolf said those bills weren’t his. It was gas usage racked up by two of his tenants that the utility failed to collect. In one case from a tenant who had left his property 8 years before.
“I wanted to do something that would not only help myself, but help lots of other people,” said Wolf.
So Wolf sued.
Piles of records are the lists other landlords also facing liens for bills their tenants allegedly owe – like Marvin Black.
“Some of these gas bills were in the neighborhood of 16 years old,” said Black.
Like Wolf, Black says he never used that gas, or signed a contract, and he says he doesn’t owe PGW a penny.
“Of course the tenant, and they should have done it in a timely manner,” said Black when asked who the utility should be going after.
“It’s so abusive,” said Wolf.
In the lawsuit, Wolf argues the utility should be turning off tenants’ gas once their bills become delinquent, and they should notify landlords, instead of letting it continue to build – in some cases into the tens of thousands of dollars overdue.
“I told them that I believe that this is unconstitutional, and now I know I’m right because the court said so,” said Rep. Scott Petri (R-Pa.).
Petri has been fighting PGW’s collection process, calling it flawed, and now a federal judge agreed. In a decision, Judge J. Curtis Joyner said it violates due process. But PGW is appealing that decision.
In a statement the utility told Action News, “PGW has, based on the Judge’s opinion, currently suspended placing liens on the properties of landlords pending final resolution of the case.”
A state law allows Philadelphia Gas Works to lien landlords without notice, Petri hopes to change that.
“Justice requires that the right thing be done,” said Petri.
“If the law is repealed, they get nothing, and of course that is what I want,” said Wolf.
A hearing is scheduled for July 11 to resolve any questions and issues with that summary judgement, and will determine whether liens previously placed on all landlords’ property will be throw out.
PWG would not say how much is owed, but they have said that costs, if that money is not collected, will be passed on to all their customers.