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Bar association studying Allegheny council vote on assessment appeals

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 12:08 a.m.

The Allegheny County Bar Association is reviewing whether non-lawyers representing property owners in assessment appeals violates the law.

“We're doing some internal investigation of whether we should take some action,” said Mark Vuono, bar association president.

County Council sparked the bar association's interest when it voted 12-1 this month to scrap a plan from the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review that would have required property owners who hire someone to appeal their assessments to use an attorney.

“Is business bad? This is nothing more than (lawyers) creating an oligopoly and making money,” said Councilman Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, who led the argument in rejecting the attorney rule. “This isn't a court of law. I don't see how it's a trial. It's not even a legal hearing.”

Family, friends and others who represent people for free would have been exempt under the board's plan. A real estate appraiser or agent, for example, would not have been.

The same issue prompted the Allegheny County Bar Association to sue the board in 1999, which resulted in a settlement two years later. The terms said real estate professionals can assist property owners in filing appeals and can submit documentary evidence. Non-lawyers, however, could not present arguments on behalf of the property owner, cite case law or cross-examine witnesses.

Vuono and Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, argued that bad lawyers can be disciplined while people who are not lawyers and do a poor job are not subjected to the same standards.

“I'm trying to protect the public, not the lawyers,” Heidelbaugh said.

Several real estate brokers spoke out against the proposed rule, including Jerry Speer, owner of Equity Real Estate Services in Squirrel Hill.

“I agree that non-lawyers should not be practicing law, but neither should non-appraisers be acting as appraisers. There are very few, if any, legal issues at the appeals board level,” said Speer, who serves on the board of directors for the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. “The issue is value.”

David Montgomery, solicitor for the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review, has said the board has “seen a lot of problems with non-attorneys in terms of the quality and consistency.”

The board has heard more than 103,000 appeals from last year's controversial property reassessment with more than 1,100 left to decide. It also has more than 15,000 appeals to hear from this year.

William Hoffmeyer, co-chairman of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said he plans to send a letter to County Council informing it that non-lawyer representation violates existing case law.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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