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F.M.C. Stores Co. v. Borough of Morris Plains

Decided: July 30, 1985.

F.M.C. STORES CO., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BOROUGH OF MORRIS PLAINS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. EDISON MALL ASSOCIATES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, V. TOWNSHIP OF EDISON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. 115 ACRES VENTURE/FIRST NATIONAL STATE BANK, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, V. TOWNSHIP OF EDISON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 195 N.J. Super. 373 (1984).

For affirmance -- Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.

Handler

[100 NJ Page 421] In each of these consolidated real property tax appeals, the taxpayer filed its appeal prior to the August 15 deadline prescribed by N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 and the municipality failed prior to the statutory deadline to file its appeal contesting its own tax assessment. The Tax Court granted motions by the municipalities for leave to file belated appeals challenging their original assessments. The Appellate Division reversed these rulings, holding that the taxing districts were required, in order to challenge their own original assessments as too low, to take their appeals by the August 15 statutory deadline. The Appellate Division also held that failure by the municipalities to take timely appeals precluded the Tax Court under these circumstances from granting increases in the original assessments, at least when discrimination is not an issue. F.M.C. Stores Co. v. Borough of Morris Plains, 195 N.J. Super. 373 (1984).

In the Edison Township cases, the taxpayers, Edison Mall and 115 Acres Venture/First National State Bank, filed on or about August 8, 1983 direct appeals to the Tax Court challenging their property assessment for 1983. They alleged both that these assessments were in excess of true value and were discriminatory. (This claim of discrimination, however, was, and is, not an issue.) The Township of Edison did not respond until March 23, 1984, when it moved for leave to file a late answer and counterclaim to challenge the original assessments. These motions were granted by the Tax Court over the taxpayers' objections, and on April 23, 1984 Edison filed its own tax appeal.

In the Morris Plains case, the taxpayer, F.M.C. Stores, filed a direct appeal to the Tax Court seeking a decrease in its property tax assessment for the year 1983, alleging both that it exceeded true value and was discriminatory. (Discrimination, as in the companion case, is no longer an issue.) The appeal was filed on or about August 15, 1983. Morris Plains filed an answer, which was dated August 15 but was not received by the Tax Court until August 18, 1982. On August 29, Morris Plains filed a motion seeking leave to amend its answer in order to add a counterclaim challenging its original assessment as being below both the true value and the common level. On October 17, 1983 the Tax Court granted this motion over the taxpayer's objection. On October 25, 1983 F.M.C. Stores filed a notice of motion for leave to appeal to the Appellate Division from the Tax Court's interlocutory order. This motion was denied by the Appellate Division on November 23, 1983. F.M.C. Stores then filed with this Court a notice of petition for certification, or, in the alternative, leave to appeal. The taxpayer in Edison Township also filed a notice of motion for leave to appeal to the Appellate Division on December 21, 1983. Following denial by the Appellate Division, the taxpayers brought a similar motion before this Court. We granted the motion in both cases, which were summarily remanded to the Appellate Division for consideration of the merits. 96 N.J. 302 (1984).

The cases were then consolidated by the Appellate Division for disposition.

The Appellate Division held that tax appeals filed by the municipalities after the August 15 statutory deadline were barred, and, in the absence of timely appeals by the taxing districts from their original assessments, the assessments could not be increased, at least when discrimination is not an issue. Each taxing district filed a notice of motion for leave to appeal, which we granted. 99 N.J. 189 (1984).

I.

The filing of a property tax appeal is governed by N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. This provision directs that both taxpayers and taxing districts aggrieved by the assessed valuation of property, or discriminated against by the assessed valuation of other property, may appeal to the county board of taxation on or before August 15 of that tax year.*fn1

The basic rationale adopted by the Tax Court in these cases to permit the filing of appeals by the municipalities after the statutory deadline was that employed by the court in Curtiss-Wright Corp. v. Wood-Ridge, 2 N.J. Tax 143 (Tax Ct.1981). The municipality was there granted leave to file untimely counterclaims in order to avoid "a manifest and gross injustice" to other taxpayers in the taxing districts. 2 N.J. Tax at 153. Central to the position taken by the Tax Court in Curtiss-Wright was the perceived unfairness stemming from the fact that the challenged assessment was based on an artificially-manufactured compromise settlement rather than on normal valuation procedures.

The Appellate Division in these cases held that the August 15 statutory deadline was a nonmodifiable jurisdictional

requirement; it rejected the rationale that the doctrine of relaxable court rules was applicable or could overcome statutory deadline requirements.*fn2 195 N.J. Super. at 381. Because the right to appeal is prescribed by statute, taxing districts are required to comply with the time prescriptions for the ...


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