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Baldwin Construction Co. v. Essex County Board of Taxation

Decided: October 30, 1953.


Eastwood, Jayne and Francis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J.A.D.


In the exercise of the authority conferred by N.J.S.A. 54:3-17 et seq. , and 54:4-46 et seq. , the Essex County Board of Taxation undertook to "revise, correct and equalize" the assessed valuation of real and personal property in the City of East Orange. To accomplish this, on March 20, 1952 it issued a single order to the assessor, directing substantial increases in the 1952 assessments of a large number of parcels of real estate.

Respondents, being some of the owners affected by the order, filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ in the Law Division of this court against appellants, Essex County

Board of Taxation and City of East Orange, charging that the methods used by the tax board in arriving at the various increases in the assessments were arbitrary, unreasonable and not uniform in their application to all the property in the city and that the increases resulted, not in the accomplishment of the statutory mandate to bring about the taxation of all property in the county or in the taxing district equally and at its true value, but in assessments which discriminated against them and caused them to bear an unequal and disproportionate share of the tax burden. The relief sought was a judgment that the order of the tax board is void and that the increases in the assessments are discriminatory and void.

In support of their action in bypassing the county tax board and the Division of Tax Appeals, the property owners alleged that since the county board had made the orders in question, an adequate review of their validity could not be obtained in that agency, and that under the law no authority existed in either board to grant relief against discriminatory assessments unless such assessments were above true value. It was further asserted as a practical basis for intervention by the courts that the prosecution of individual appeals before the boards by the large number of taxpayers affected, would necessitate repetitious testimony and prohibitive cost for any one of them.

The tax board and the city moved to dismiss the action on the ground that the administrative remedies of appeal to the county and state tax boards had not been exhausted. The motion was denied. Baldwin Const. Co. v. Essex County Board of Taxation , 21 N.J. Super. 370 (Law Div. 1952).

Thereupon answers were filed and some discovery proceedings engaged in. The county board then moved for summary judgment, contending that under Rule 3:81-8 (now R.R. 4:88-8) review of its final action, as a state administrative agency, was by appeal to the Appellate Division.

Again the application was denied in large measure upon the same ground as the earlier motion, namely, that under

Rule 3:81-14 (now R.R. 4:88-14) the exhaustion of administrative review was not necessary because manifestly the interests of justice required initial resort to the courts. Ibid. , 24 N.J. Super. 252 (Law Div. 1952). Apparently the major factor which brought about this conclusion was the doubt which, the court felt, exists as to the authority of either the county or state tax board to remedy discriminatory assessments, where doing so would reduce such assessments below the true value of the property.

On appeal, this ruling was affirmed per curiam on certain terms. Ibid. , 27 N.J. Super. 240 (App. Div. 1953). Thereafter, the cause was reargued at our suggestion.

In 1908 the rule was reaffirmed in New Jersey that if a taxpayer's property is assessed at true value, the fact that the property of others in the same district is assessed at less than true value provided no ground for reducing his assessment below true value. In such a situation, his only redress is to apply for an increase in the valuations of the others. Royal Mfg. Co. v. Board of Equalization , 76 N.J.L. 402 (Sup. Ct. 1908), affirmed 78 N.J.L. 337 (E. & A. 1909); Maxson v. Segoine , 53 N.J.L. 339 (Sup. Ct. 1891), affirmed 54 N.J.L. 212 (E. & A. 1891); State, etc., v. Koster , 38 N.J.L. 308 (Sup. Ct. 1876); State, etc., v. Taylor , 35 N.J.L. 184 (Sup. Ct. 1871); State v. Dickerson , 25 N.J.L. 427 (Sup. Ct. 1856). The view that no other relief could be given, no matter how manifest the discrimination, stemmed from the direction of the 1844 Constitution that "property shall be assessed for taxes * * * according to its true value" (Art. IV, ยง VII, par. 12), and ...

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