Throughout the United States, taxpayers can expect to bear the burden of proof in property tax appeals. Standards vary by jurisdiction, but owners who seek to change a municipality’s assessment must convince a board or court that the property owner is correct in challenging the assessor’s conclusion. If they fail in that argument, the assessment remains unchanged.
Commercial taxpayers and their tax professionals often review decisions by local courts to glean direction and weigh prospects of a favorable outcome in their own cases. These stakeholders tend to only view complex commercial property cases for insight, ignoring residential and small commercial cases. But seemingly insignificant residential and small commercial cases are rich in detail that may aid taxpayers with a more sophisticated case when preparing to meet the standard of proof.
Some of these smaller cases shine a light on changing expectations of the court. For example, courts may begin to deem evidence that once would have been acceptable to meet the court’s threshold is no longer adequate. Thus, while the court does not change the law or create new standards, its interpretation of “sufficient competent evidence” may well move the goal post. The education obtained from these cases is not a guiding light to win a case, but rather a reminder of how not to lose one.
In New Jersey, law presumes that any property assessment is correct. Based on this presumption, any taxpayer appealing that valuation has the burden of proving the assessment is erroneous. The presumption is more than an allocation of which party carries the burden of proof. Rather, it expresses that in tax matters, the law presumes that the assessor correctly exercised their governmental authority. In a 1998 decision, MSGW Real Estate Fund vs. the Borough of Mountain Lak, the court stated that the presumption of correctness stands until sufficient competent evidence to the contrary is presented.
Courts must decide whether the evidence presented is sufficient to counter the assessor’s conclusion. To meet that standard, the evidence presented must be sufficient to determine the value of the property under appeal, thereby establishing the existence of a debatable question as to the correctness of the assessment.
This language is common in most jurisdictions. In New Jersey, it is also increasingly more common to see a change in the trial court’s interpretation of what meets the level of proof to question the assessor’s assumptions. The danger to taxpayers occurs when a court of special expertise establishes case law that, in effect, raises the standard of proof by simply increasing the evidence barrier to attain a reduction.
For example, in January of this year a New Jersey tax court decided Arteaga vs. Township of Wyckoff, where the taxpayer challenged the assessment of a single-family home assessed at approximately $900,000. The property owner offered an expert and an appraisal report for the years under appeal, while the municipality did not complete an appraisal, instead relying on the presumption of correctness.
The taxpayer’s expert cited three sales in a sales comparison and concluded a value of approximately $775,000. In a 10-page opinion, the court rejected the expert’s conclusions, finding fault with his adjustments to the comparable sales.
The court stated that an expert’s testimony must have a proper foundation to be of any value in an appeal. Citing earlier cases, the court stated that an expert must offer specific underlying reasons for their opinions, not mere conclusions. An expert witness is required to “give the why and wherefore of his expert opinion, not just a mere conclusion.” In this case, the court found that the plaintiff’s expert provided no substantive factual evidence to support the adjustments made.
The trend toward requiring a higher level of evidence has been growing over a number of years. As the court noted in a 1996 case, Hull function Holding Corp. vs. Princeton Borough, expert opinion unsupported by adequate facts has consistently been rejected by the tax court. Other rulings have stated that while the court has an obligation to apply its own judgment to valuation data submitted by experts in order to arrive at a true value and find an assessment for the years in question, the court must receive credible and competent evidence to make an independent finding of true value.
In the recent case, the court stated it was not provided with credible and competent evidence. As a result, the court had insufficient information from which to determine valuation. The court concluded that in general the expert provided no market analysis for any of the adjustments he made to his comparable sales.
The lesson to be learned: be aware of the potential of a new, heightened level of proof to establish a reduction. The case law has not been changed or altered. However, while most jurisdictions have case law suggesting that a court be mindful of the expense and reasonableness of data it should expect from a taxpayer to prove its case, trends have started to appear that swing the decisions toward a more difficult and expensive standard.
A number of recently decided residential tax appeals have followed this path to a find of no-change to the assessment. While the courts may be correct in the conclusions that evidence was lacking, they set a disturbing tone as to the level of expectation required for data to prove a value reduction.
The answer for taxpayers seeking a solution to this issue cannot be detailed so as to follow a definitive path to victory. For taxpayers seeking reductions in assessments, they must be aware and wary of not only the law, but the court’s most recent expectations.