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Anchorage Associates v. Virgin Islands Board of Tax Review and Tax Assessor

argued: April 24, 1990.

ANCHORAGE ASSOCIATES, TAMARIND ASSOCIATES, PATRICIA BLACKER, MICHAEL AND EILEEN BROWER, ARCHIE AND EILEEN DUGUID, MICHAEL ALBARELLI, ET AL.
v.
VIRGIN ISLANDS BOARD OF TAX REVIEW AND TAX ASSESSOR, APPELLANTS



On Appeal From the United States District Court of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas; D.C. Civil Action No. 84-287.

Sloviter, Stapleton, and Hutchinson, Circuit Judges.

Author: Stapleton

Opinion OF THE COURT

STAPLETON, Circuit Judge

I.

This is an appeal from an order of the district court of the Virgin Islands granting relief from a challenged real estate tax assessment. Appellee, Anchorage Associates ("Anchorage"), moved for a summary judgment after the Virgin Islands Tax Review Board ("the Board") allegedly violated Anchorage's right to due process. When the Board and the Tax Assessor of the Virgin Islands ("the Tax Assessor") failed to respond to the taxpayer's motion, the district court deemed it conceded pursuant to Rule 6(i)*fn1 of its local rules and granted the requested relief. The Board argues that the district court was without jurisdiction to enter the contested order. Alternatively, the Board maintains that even if the district court had jurisdiction, it abused its discretion in entering the order without a hearing and without consideration of the factors set forth in Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 747 F.2d 863 (3d Cir. 1984).

We conclude that the district court did have jurisdiction to enter the challenged order. However, we hold that the district court could not properly enter summary judgment in favor of Anchorage based solely on Rule 6(i) and without a determination that Anchorage was entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the facts set forth in the motion. The district court record gives no indication that the court made such a determination. Accordingly, we will vacate the district court's order and remand for further proceedings.

II.

We have jurisdiction over this appeal from a final order of the district court. 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law subject to plenary review. Medical Fund-Philadelphia Geriatric Center v. Heckler, 804 F.2d 33, 36 (3d Cir. 1986). The issue presented by the district court's application and interpretation of its Rule 6(i) is also one over which we exercise plenary review. See Dent v. Cunningham, 786 F.2d 173, 175 (3d Cir. 1986) (appellate review is plenary where "issues involve the selection, interpretation, and application of legal precepts").

III.

This case presents a remarkable record of delay and institutional incompetence. Anchorage, a group of condominium owners, properly challenged their 1981 tax assessments by paying those assessments and filing a refund petition in 1982. See 33 V.I.C. § 2451(a). After a hearing, the Board of Tax Review directed Anchorage to resolve as many issues as possible with the Tax Assessor. The parties reached agreement on many, but not all, of the disputed assessments. Anchorage then returned to the Board seeking resolution of the remaining claims. In July of 1984, after a second hearing, the Board denied Anchorage's refund petition. The Board's order was not restricted to those taxpayers with unresolved disputes. It applied as well to those who had settled their differences with the Tax Assessor. Anchorage then petitioned the district court for a writ of review pursuant to 33 V.I.C. § 2453(c).*fn2 The district court granted the writ in September of 1984, and directed the Board to furnish the court with a transcript of the second hearing.

Nearly two years later, with no transcript to review, the district court ordered the Board to provide a transcript of the hearing within twenty days of the court's order. Over three months later, the court again ordered the Board to supply a transcript. Still, the Board failed to respond. On January 29, 1987, the court for the fourth time ordered the Board to provide a transcript.

In late February of 1987, the Board filed its first responsive document with the district court. The Board declared that it lacked the funds to create a transcript. As an alternative, it asked the court to remand to the Board for a new hearing. On March 27, 1989, the court granted the motion over Anchorage's objection. Six months later, with no hearing yet held, Anchorage moved the court for reconsideration of its remand order. The court ordered the Board to hold the hearing no later than January 15, 1988.

The Board did not schedule a hearing until May 25, 1989. At that time, Anchorage requested a short continuance because its chief witness was temporarily away from the Islands. The Board refused the request and conducted a closed door hearing that day. Its decision denying relief was released on June 13, 1989, seven years after the filing of the refund petition. The Board never informed the district court of that decision.

On June 6, 1989, after the closed hearing, but before a decision had been rendered by the Board, Anchorage filed a motion for the entry of judgment in its favor. The motion recounted the years of delay in the proceeding before the Board and alleged that the May 25, 1989, hearing was held in violation of the court's order as well as the Virgin Island statute requiring the Board to conduct its meetings in public. The motion asserted that Anchorage was entitled to summary judgment because the failure to provide a reasonable process for determining its right to recoup the taxes extracted from it violated Anchorage's right to due process of law.

The Board never responded to Anchorage's motion and on October 6, 1989, the district court entered judgment in favor of Anchorage. The district court's order declared that the motion for judgment was deemed conceded because the Board and the Tax Assessor had filed no answer or opposition. The Board appeals from that order.

IV.

A. The District Court's ...


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