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Union City Associates v. City of Union City

Decided: April 27, 1989.

UNION CITY ASSOCIATES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
CITY OF UNION CITY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT AND CROSS-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 223 N.J. Super. 316 (1988).

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

Garibaldi

[115 NJ Page 18] N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 provides that a taxpayer, challenging a tax assessment on real property assessed at $750,000 or more, may elect to appeal the assessment to either the Tax Court or the county board of taxation. The issue here is whether a taxpayer who initially files a timely complaint in the Tax Court and then subsequently files a complaint in the county board of taxation may simultaneously maintain identical appeals in both forums. We find that the Legislature intended to bind the taxpayer by his election and that the taxpayer may not maintain identical appeals in both forums.

I

Union City Associates ("taxpayer") is the present owner of property located at Block 22, Lot 1, on Central Avenue in Union City, Hudson County. In 1983, while the property was owned by Washington Park Urban Renewal ("Washington Park"), the City of Union City ("taxing district") assessed the property at $2,700,000. Later that year, the property was sold to West Park Washington Corporation ("West Park").

On August 11, 1983, Washington Park filed a direct appeal to the Tax Court pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:3-21, challenging the taxing district's 1983 assessment. On August 15, 1983, West Park, a recent purchaser of the property, also filed a direct appeal in the Tax Court challenging the same assessment. Eleven days later, on August 26, 1983,*fn1 while both appeals were pending, West Park filed an appeal with the Hudson County Board of Taxation ("county board"), seeking the same relief it had already sought in the Tax Court. No stay of the Tax Court proceeding was requested. The same attorney filed both appeals on behalf of West Park. On October 13, 1983, two weeks before the county board hearing, Washington Park, which had sold the property by that time, requested the withdrawal of its Tax Court complaint. On November 17, 1983, the Tax Court issued Washington Park a judgment of dismissal.

On October 28, 1983, the county board held a hearing. Exactly what occurred at the hearing is in dispute.*fn2 It is undisputed that there was no trial, no testimony taken, no appraisals submitted, and that the county board entered a judgment marked "affirmed as assessed." The reason for the judgment as indicated by the county board's judgment code was "No change in assessment." The taxing district argues that the parties agreed to have the county board issue a judgment of affirmance merely as a matter of convenience while they awaited resolution of the pending Tax Court complaint. Taxpayer, on the other hand, claims that the county board issued a judgment on the merits. Neither party appealed the county board's judgment.

Approximately one year after the county-board hearing, West Park sought to withdraw its Tax Court complaint appealing the 1983 tax assessment. On December 7, 1984, a Tax Court judgment was entered dismissing the complaint.

For the tax year 1985, the property was reassessed by the taxing district at $3,700,000. This represented an increase of $1,000,000 over the 1983 assessment affirmed by the county board. Taxpayer, the new owner, did not immediately appeal the assessment. On March 19, 1986, however, relying on the 1983 county board judgment, taxpayer filed a complaint in the Tax Court challenging the 1985 assessment as violating the Freeze Act.*fn3 The taxing district did not file a timely deflecting

complaint alleging that the Freeze Act was not applicable because the property increased in value after the base year assessment. Nevertheless, the taxing district contends that the Freeze Act is inapplicable because the 1983 judgment was not an "action or determination" sufficient to support a Freeze Act judgment for 1985. Both parties moved for summary judgment.

The Tax Court dismissed taxpayer's Freeze Act application on the ground that the county board's judgment was void for want of subject matter jurisdiction. Union City Assocs. v. Union City, 8 N.J. Tax 583, 593 (1986). The court reasoned that N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 authorizes a taxpayer whose property assessment exceeds $750,000 to file either a direct appeal in the Tax Court or an appeal before the county board, but not both. Id. at 591.

The Appellate Division reversed the Tax Court, concluding that the language of N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 imposed no restriction on the entitlement of the taxpayer or the taxing district to use either forum, provided the appeal was timely made and the assessment exceeded $750,000. Union City Assocs. v. Union City, 223 N.J. Super. 316, 321 (1988). It found that the statute does not "support the view ...


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