Presented for determination in this motion for summary judgment is the question of whether the Freeze Act, N.J.S.A. 54:2-43, can be applied to a judgment which is based upon a stipulation of settlement.
This is a local property tax appeal involving valuation of the subject property for the tax year 1980. The original assessment for 1980 was as follows:
Following an appeal by the taxpayer, the Middlesex County Board of Taxation, on October 29, 1980, entered a judgment reducing the assessment to $8,850,000, allocated: land $1,475,000; improvements $7,375,000. The taxing district then filed the present appeal to the Tax Court, complaining that the reduction in assessment granted by the county board was in error and did not reflect the true value of the property. The taxpayer filed an answer, asserting that the taxing district, in the absence of a revaluation of all properties in the municipality or a change in value of the subject, was estopped from levying a higher assessment than that reflected in a 1979 Tax Court judgment concerning the property. The taxpayer also filed a counterclaim, asserting that in the event the complaint of the taxing district was not dismissed for the reasons stated in its answer, the judgment of the county board was in excess of the true value of the property.
The subject property was the subject of Tax Court appeals covering the years 1977, 1978 and 1979. These appeals resulted in a Tax Court judgment, entered by the Clerk of the Court on June 25, 1980, setting the assessment for each of those years at $8,850,000, allocated: land $1,475,000; improvements $7,375,000.*fn1 The judgment was based upon a stipulation of settlement, dated March 24, 1980, signed by counsel for both parties.
The taxpayer, Kentile Floors, Inc., defendant in the present action, moves for summary judgment against plaintiff Borough of South Plainfield. Defendant maintains that the 1979 Tax Court judgment was a final judgment within the meaning of the Freeze Act, N.J.S.A. 54:2-43, thereby barring any increase in assessment for the tax year 1980 over and above the 1979 judgment. N.J.S.A. 54:2-43 provides as follows:
Where a judgment final has been rendered by the tax court involving real property such judgment shall be conclusive and binding upon the municipal assessor and the taxing district, parties to such proceeding, for the assessment year and for the 2 assessment years succeeding the assessment year covered by the final judgment, except as to changes in the value of the property occurring after the assessment date. Where such changes are alleged, the complaint shall specifically set forth the nature of the changes relied upon as the basis for such appeal. However, the conclusive and binding effect of such judgment shall terminate with the tax year immediately preceding the year in which a program for a complete revaluation of all real property within the district has been put into effect.
The statute provides for two exceptions to operation of the freeze: when a revaluation of all property in the taxing district has occurred and when the value of the property changes subsequent to the assessment date of the year of the base judgment. Plaintiff's brief does not state that a revaluation was put into effect in 1980, nor does it allege that the value of the property has changed subsequent to October 1, 1978, the assessment date for the tax year 1979. At oral argument it was made clear that plaintiff conceded that no revaluation was implemented in South Plainfield in 1980, and that no change in value occurred during the relevant period. Therefore, neither of the exceptions contained in the Freeze Act are implicated. The remaining issues, then, are the following:
I. Whether the matter is ripe for summary judgment.
II. Whether a judgment issued pursuant to a settlement arrived at prior to any trial or hearing is a "judgment final" within the meaning ...