If the compelling evidence is on your side, the record shows you have a fighting chance.
The best time to consider how an appellate court might view a property tax appeal is not after a trial court delivers an unwelcome decision. Rather, as the taxpayer carefully plans the evidence to be submitted at trial, it is worthwhile to consider how the evidence will look to appellate judges.
The handling of tax cases in appellate courts receives comparatively little attention. Yet an appellate court may well make the final decision in a property tax appeal. That appellate court may even be a state’s highest court, typically (though not always) the state’s supreme court.
Based on the attention given to appellate court strategies in tax literature, the handling of appeals is a neglected orphan in the property tax process. Innumerable property tax articles address how assessors mass appraisal methods can overstate a property’s market value.
Writers cover pitfalls of the typical cost and sales comparisons and income approaches to value, or detail valuation peculiarities by property type. Little is written about the key issue that can help tax-payers prevail in the appellate courts.
The Record Rules
Everyone has heard that the three points of consequence for real property are location, location, location. For a property tax appeal in an appellate court, those three points of consequence are the record, the record and the record.
Whether the taxpayer is the appellant or is responding to an appeal, the best chance of prevailing derives from a record filled with compelling evidence that covers the big-picture points, as well as all of the finer ones.
Some recent decisions confirm these points and show some of the opportunities and challenges that property tax appeals in appellate courts can entail. In each case the appellate court found that the record showed the tribunal had adopted a wrong principle or made a decision not supported by competent and substantial evidence.
In one Midwestern case, the question at issue was whether the taxpayer had mistakenly reported personal property as taxable in a particular jurisdiction, even though the personal property was not only in other cities, but also in a different state.
At trial, counsel had the taxpayer testify in painstaking detail about the property and its location, including unusual costs the taxpayer incurred to maintain the property. Notwithstanding this evidence, the tribunal held that the taxpayer had failed to satisfy its burden of proof.
At oral argument in the court of appeals, however, the taxpayer’s counsel was able to read compelling portions of the transcript to show that the trial judge had erred badly.
Sometimes judges cannot be swayed, no matter what is said at oral argument, but in this case the passages quoted grabbed the attention of all three appellate court judges, who seemed to fully understand the injustice that had occurred. The resulting decision gave the taxpayer a complete victory.
Great Valuation Records
A second case involved a retail property in the Midwest that was almost 80 percent vacant on each of two valuation dates. The initial tax tribunal decision adopted the appropriate methodology by using the income approach to first value the property at a stabilized occupancy of 85 percent, which the judge determined was the stabilized rate. The judge then deducted the lost rent and costs involved over the time needed for the property to reach stabilized occupancy level.
Unfortunately, the tribunal’s decision included three technical flaws:
It deducted only a portion of the stabilization costs; it understated the area needed to be leased in order to achieve stabilization; and it included market rent that was inappropriately increased in the second tax year calculation because a gross lease was misconstrued as a net lease.
The record, including both the testimony of the taxpayer’s witnesses as well as a carefully documented appraisal, enabled the appellate court to see that the initial decision erred on all three points. The taxpayer was fortunate that the three-judge panel deciding the appeal was willing to carefully analyze such technical valuation issues, rather than defer to a tax tribunal judge. Yet this successful outcome hinged on compelling recorded evidence.
In a third and similar Midwestern case, the appraiser had initially valued a retail property as stabilized and then deducted stabilization costs. Most of those costs were to cure the property’s extreme deferred maintenance, with a small amount relating to the leasing of vacant space to achieve stabilized occupancy.
The tribunal decision erroneously adopted the interim value before applying the stabilization deductions, With a record very much like the first case, the appeals court recognized that the cost of curing the deferred maintenance had to be accounted for, yet inexplicably failed to order the deduction of the modest costs related to the property achieving stabilized occupancy.
The taxpayer’s counsel made excellent lemonade from this decision by pointing out to the government’s counsel that, undeniably, the decision was logically inconsistent, because if the costs to cure deferred maintenance had to be deducted, then the same was true of the costs to cure the excessive vacancy.
Additionally, the taxpayer’s counsel argued that given the costs of further appeals and the likelihood that the taxpayer would ultimately prevail, a sensible solution would be for the government to agree to the value with the deferred maintenance costs de-ducted. In fact, the government ultimately did agree and settled with the taxpayer on that basis.
While this case provided the taxpayer with an excellent result, it shows that a compelling record is a necessary – but not always sufficient – condition to prevail.