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Goldberg v. Traver

Decided: January 24, 1968.

DAVID J. GOLDBERG, STATE COMMISSIONER OF TRANSPORTATION, NEW JERSEY STATE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LAWRENCE R. TRAVER, TAX COLLECTOR OF THE TOWNSHIP OF LIVINGSTON, TOWNSHIP OF LIVINGSTON, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS. DAVID J. GOLDBERG, COMMISSIONER OF TRANSPORTATION, NEW JERSEY STATE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFFS, V. MILAN H. HARTZ, TAX COLLECTOR OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MILLBURN, AND TOWNSHIP OF MILLBURN, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS



Mintz, J.s.c.

Mintz

[99 NJSuper Page 105] These causes, although not formally consolidated for hearing, were argued at the same time, and by consent of the parties will be considered as if presented on cross-motions for summary judgment. The State of New

Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Transportation (hereinafter the Department) seek to enjoin permanently the Townships of Livingston and Millburn from selling for tax arrears under N.J.S.A. 54:5-19 certain lands conveyed to or condemned by the State for highway purposes. Such lands were acquired by the State or Department in 1966, but prior to June 9, 1966. The parcels in Livingston Township were acquired by the State by conveyance, and the parcel in Millburn Township through condemnation.

Significance is attached by the Department to the date of June 9, 1966 because it was on that date that the Supreme Court rendered its decision in City of East Orange v. Palmer, 47 N.J. 307 (1966), affirming in part the trial court. The trial court had held that the State was obliged to pay the City of East Orange property taxes on land acquired by purchase for the time between the date of acquisition of title to the end of the full tax year following the last assessment against a private owner. City of East Orange v. Palmer, 82 N.J. Super. 258 (Ch. Div. 1964). The State's appeal was certified to the Supreme Court on its own motion. The Supreme Court extended the trial court's ruling and, performing a law-creating function, held that the State and the Highway Authority were liable to East Orange for real property taxes for the balance of the tax year in which the State acquired properties regardless of whether the acquisition was by conveyance or condemnation. These rulings upset an administrative practice long acquiesced in by municipalities, that any obligation for municipal property taxes ceased upon the day title passed to the State for such land either through voluntary deed or condemnation.

On the oral argument it was agreed that the two issues to be resolved in these proceedings are:

(1) Whether the State and Department are liable to the municipalities for the balance of the real property taxes assessed for the year 1966 on properties acquired by the State in 1966 but prior to June 9, 1966.

(2) If so, may the respective municipalities sell the State-held properties for the 1966 tax arrears pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:5-19.

Livingston Township proposes a tax sale for four parcels which the State obtained by voluntary conveyances in January and February 1966 for the Route I-280 project. Millburn Township proposes a tax sale for land condemned by the State in early 1966 for Route I-78. Both townships allege the State is obliged under City of East Orange v. Palmer, supra, to pay the balance of the 1966 assessed taxes allocable to the period after the respective titles passed to it, and the municipalities seek to recover those revenues through tax sales pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:5-19. The State and Department contend that the Supreme Court decision in City of East Orange v. Palmer does not affect properties acquired by the State prior to June 9, 1966.

Livingston Township argues that as to properties voluntarily conveyed to the State before June 9, the balance of 1966 taxes from the acquisition date are due the municipality by virtue of the trial court judgment in City of East Orange v. Palmer. Hence, in Livingston's view no issue of retrospective effect of the Supreme Court decision is raised. It urges that the Chancery Division opinion rendered on February 1, 1964 served as unmistakable notice to the State of its future balance-of-the-year tax liability on voluntarily conveyed lands, and requires other trial courts which thereafter would hear similar municipal claims arising from later voluntary acquisitions to respect the holding as stare decisis on the legal principle involved.

While trial court precedent is not to be considered lightly, in the absence of an appellate authority in New Jersey this court is not compelled to follow it. Ferraro v. Ferro Trucking Co., 72 N.J. Super. 519 (Law Div. 1962). In any event, stare decisis is a principle of adherence for the sake of certainty and stability to precedents once established. But it applies primarily to decisions which invite reliance and on the basis of which men order their affairs,

e.g., in the field of contract or property rights. Smith v. Brennan, 31 N.J. 353, 361 (1960). In the instant situation the trial court opinion in City of East Orange v. Palmer cannot be said to invite reliance, for the court squarely recognized the inconclusiveness of its judgment when it said:

"* * * I mention an appeal because, in the absence of an appellate ruling in New Jersey fixing the date on which the tax exemption of the State takes effect when property has been acquired by deed, and with many parcels of real estate being purchased, it seems desirable to have a more ...


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