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[W] New Jersey Transit Corp. v. Borough of Somerville

April 19, 1995

NEW JERSEY TRANSIT CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOROUGH OF SOMERVILLE, DEFENDANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 273 N.J. Super 171 (1994).

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, and Coleman join in this opinion. Justice Stein has filed a separate Dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi

OPINION WITHDRAWN

NEW JERSEY TRANSIT CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOROUGH OF SOMERVILLE, DEFENDANT.

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 273 N.J. Super 171 (1994).

Joseph L. Yannotti, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Deborah T. Poritz, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).

Michael D. Sullivan, argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey State League of Municipalities (Stickel, Koenig & Sullivan, attorneys).

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, and Coleman join in this opinion. Justice Stein has filed a separate Dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

NEW JERSEY TRANSIT CORPORATION V. BOROUGH OF SOMERVILLE

Argued January 4, 1995 -- Decided April 19, 1995

GARIBALDI, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

This appeal addresses the limitations period that applies to the filing of a petition by the State or one of its political subdivisions contesting real-property tax assessments -- the filing time limitations imposed under N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 or the ten-year period imposed under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2.

On or about August 15, 1991, New Jersey Transit Corporation (Transit) filed petitions with the Somerset County Tax Board contesting the local property-tax assessments levied against it by the Borough of Somerville (Somerville). Each petition sought exemption from the 1981 to 1990 tax assessments pursuant to N.J.S.A. 27:25-16(Transit tax exemption), N.J.S.A. 54:29A-1 (granting exemptions to certain rail property), and 45 U.S.C.A.§ 581(c)(5) (federal exemption of rail property, retroactive to October 1, 1981).

The Somerset County Board of Taxation found the appeals untimely and affirmed the property-tax assessments. Transit appealed to the Tax Court. Somerville chose not to oppose Transit's challenge to those assessments. The Tax Court dismissed Transit's appeals, finding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeals because they had not been timely filed within the statutory limitations period imposed by N.J.S.A. 54:3-21.

Transit appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing that N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2, allowed Transit to file an appeal at any time within that statute's ten-year limitations period. The Appellate Division affirmed the Tax Court's determination that N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2 did not apply to real-property tax appeals. However, the Appellate Division did find that Transit was entitled, under federal preemption doctrine, to the retroactive tax exemption granted by 45 U.S.C.A.§ 581(c)(5). As such, Transit was relieved of liability for those assessments asserted against it after the operational date of that federal statute, October, 1, 1981.

The Supreme Court granted Transit's petition for certification,

HELD: N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2, the general ten-year limitations period, is inapplicable to the State or its instrumentalities in challenges to real-property tax assessments. Rather, the State falls within the specific and express limitations period provided in N.J.S.A. 54:3-21.

1. In 1991, this Court abrogated the common-law nullum tempus doctrine, which provides that statutes of limitations do not run against the State. In response, the Legislature passed N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2, the uniform ten-year limitations period applicable to actions commenced by the State or its subdivisions unless another limitations provision expressly and specifically applies or a longer limitations period applies. This statute was intended to apply to cases where, under the common-law doctrine of nullum tempus, the State and its agencies had been exempt from statutes of limitations generally applicable in civil actions. (pp. 5-6)

2. The common-law doctrine of nullum tempus has not been applied to the State or its agencies in real-property tax appeals, whereas the filing deadline imposed under N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 in contesting property-tax assessments has been applied to governmental entities. The Legislature could not have intended N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2 provide governmental entities with a longer statute of limitations than they previously had enjoyed. (pp. 6-7)

3. Under N.J.S.A. 54:3-21, Transit's appeals for tax years 1981 to 1990, filed on or about August 15, 1991, were untimely filed. Governmental instrumentalities are taxpayers within the meaning of that statute and filing deadlines in actions contesting local property-tax assessments have long been applied to taxpayer governmental entities as well as private litigants. Strong public policy concerns dictate that the State and its instrumentalities strictly adhere to the filing deadlines of N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. Statutes of limitations in tax cases must be strictly construed because of the need for predictability and certainty in respect of governmental budgets and revenues. A ten-year statute of limitations to contest property-tax assessments would only result in uncertainty and chaos. (pp. 7-11)

4. When two statutes conflict, the more specific controls over the more general. N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 is more specific than N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2 and therefore prevails. Transit is an aggrieved taxpayer under N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 whose tax appeals were filed out of time. Therefore, Transit is liable for those taxes assessed against it during the tax years 1981 to 1990. However, because of the exemption of 45 U.S.C.A.§ 581(c)(5), Transit is only liable for those taxes levied against it prior to October 1, 1981. (pp. 11-13)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE STEIN, Dissenting, is of the view that the Court's Disposition of this appeal is wrong as a matter of statutory interpretation and because respect for a coordinate branch ...


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