A pair of Delaware County school districts are at the head of a class-action lawsuit filed against prothonotary offices in 54 Pennsylvania county Courts of Common Pleas over alleged overcharging of fees.
Cambria County Solicitor William Barbin said the action is a result of excessive fees allegedly charged to political subdivisions when filing complaints in prothonotary offices.
“In some counties in the eastern United States, it costs as much as $350 to file a complaint,” Barbin said. “In Cambria County, it costs $110 to $115, and $60 to $75 of our $115 is fees that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court puts on, so that’s out of our control. The prothonotary charges $40 to file a complaint.
“In that fee law, there’s a clause at the end of it saying no political subdivision should be required to pay more than $10 to file a document. Everybody’s sort of ignored that. The prothonotary, my entire legal career, starting in 1981, has charged subdivisions the same that they charge everybody else.”
The suit, which names Chester Upland School District and the Chichester School District as class representatives, was filed on April 30.
Subdivisions protected under the act include townships, boroughs, cities, counties and school districts. Municipal authorities are not included under the umbrella covered by the act.
Barbin said that Cambria County Prothonotary Lisa Crynock had recently completed an audit of the Cambria County office’s ledgers over the past four years and stated that, if the office was only allowed to charge $10 per filing to political subdivisions, the county would owe a total of $3,000 to various subdivisions within the county.
The Somerset County Prothonotary’s Office is also one of the 54 counties named in the legal filing.
Each office now has a window to respond to the claims, Somerset County Solicitor Michael Barbera said.
“Basically, the underlying issue is that they claim there’s an obscure state provision that caps the filing fee that can be charged to a political subdivision, such as a school district, to $10,” Barbera said. “So if the filing fee is $17.50, they say you can only charge $10.”
County officials have reviewed the petition and, at this point, do not plan on relying on a joint defense being spearheaded by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
“If we just assumed for argument’s sake that the plaintiff was right about everything they claim, our exposure would be minimal,” Barbera said.
At Thursday’s meeting of the Cambria County Board of Commissioners, Barbin explained the situation to the county commissioners before they voted to approve an agreement with McNees, Wallace & Nurick for legal representation in the suit, along with entering into a joint defense agreement with other Pennsylvania counties.
Barbin told the commissioners that he would try to find the most inexpensive resolution if the county prothonotary’s office was found to be in the wrong.
“The attorney fees could far surpass any actual amount that was allegedly overcharged,” Barbin said.
The complaint asks for four years of excessive fees back.
“It might be a whole lot cheaper to just refund the money right now,” Barbin said. “We’re double-checking that all things say what we think they say, and to make sure everything’s calculated right and proper. But I intend to contact the political subdivisions who have filed complaints and other documents about refunds.”
The proactive approach, Barbin feels, might be in the best interest of county residents.
“Is there a way we can short-circuit our involvement?” Barbin said. “If we can short-circuit the involvement and get out of the case before the attorneys start running up big bills, that would be very beneficial to the taxpayers.”