Legal Lode: No Payin, No Gain

Trash delinquent floats several theories for why he’s not obligated to pay his bill.

Lawsuits can be frivolous and petty. Take the case of two New Jersey men who sued a fast-food chain because its so-called foot-long sandwiches fell slightly short of 12 inches. On the other hand, defendants sometimes answer a legitimate claim with a baseless, irresponsible defense.

Pennsylvania cities may regulate the pick-up and disposal of garbage and other waste materials and may impose and collect fees and charges, by lien or otherwise. The city of Reading adopted ordinances that mandate city solid waste and recyclables collection for all properties with four or fewer residential units. Property owners must pay an annual waste collection and disposal fee and an annual recycling fee. The recycling fee is payable with no exceptions, but an owner may opt out of city waste collection and thereby avoid the service fee. To do so, the owner must substantiate, twice a year, that a state-licensed waste hauler currently services the location under written contract.

Ronald Heckman owns a residential property in Reading with two dwelling units. In May, 2010, the city sent him a notice demanding payment for trash and recycling fees for the years 2002, 2004 and 2007-08. Three months later, after discovering that the unpaid fees actually spanned 1995 to 2004 plus 2007-08, officials issued a second notice for the 12 delinquent years.

Having gotten no payment from the owner, the city filed a lien in the amount of $1,898 against the property in late December. Shortly thereafter, the city filed a court action seeking a judgment against Heckman for the lien amount. At the trial, the city presented evidence that the property was subject to waste and recycling fees and evi- dence of the unpaid fees, plus interest and cost of collection, bringing the full claim to $2,346.

Heckman did not dispute the amount of the city’s claim, and admitted that he never paid the fees. His defense was based on his using private haulers and the fact that the city did not collect waste or recyclables from the property, which he insisted was not residential. He conceded not asking the city for an exemption from the waste fee and he did not produce copies of any contracts with haulers. After considering the evidence and the arguments from both sides, the trial judge entered a judgment in favor of the city and against Heckman in the amount of $2,346.

“Where a municipality lawfully provides for trash disposal or recycling and imposes a fee on residents [for the service] all residents to whom the fee applies are obligated to pay ... regardless of whether they actually need or use the ... services and even if they dispose of their waste and recyclables through other means,” the opinion continued. “Residents ... are users of the ... service ... because they ... benefit from the general disposal system by collection of refuse from other premises.”

As for the 1994 court decision, “nothing ... excused Heckman from his obli- gation to pay recycling fees ... or trash fees ... ,” said the appeals court. Did his property have four or fewer dwelling units? Back then, Heckman himself admitted it.

[City of Reading v. Heckman, No. 428 C.D. 2012 (Pa. Commw., Nov. 8, 2012)]

Barry Shanoff is a Rockville, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail:[email protected].

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