On certification to Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 279 N.J. Super. 449 (1995).
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice POLLOCK's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock
(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).
GENERAL MOTORS CORP. v. CITY OF LINDEN. ET AL. (A-66/109-95)
(NOTE: This is a companion case to David Rivkin, et al. v. Dover Township Rent Leveling Board also decided today.)
Argued October 24, 1995 -- Decided February 29, 1996
POLLOCK, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue on appeal is whether General Motors Corporation (GM) may maintain an action under 42 U.S.C.A. 1983 (§ 1983) against the City of Linden; Emanuel Frangella, Linden's tax assessor; and Richard Chaiken, a property appraiser retained by Frangella (defendants).
On October 1, 1993, GM filed this action against defendants seeking compensatory and punitive damages under § 1983. GM claims that defendants discriminated against it by assessing GM's automobile assembly plant in violation of GM's due process rights. Underlying that claim is GM's contention that defendants reassessed the plant at an excessive value in retaliation for GM's appeals from prior assessments. GM sought damages of two million dollars plus interest, costs, and counsel fees.
The Union County Board of Taxation affirmed the tax assessment and GM appealed to the Tax Court, where the matter is still pending. [N.B., On January 4, 1996, the Tax Court issued an interlocutory decision in this matter that held a section of the Business Retention Act to be unconstitutional under the Uniformity Clause. That decision is currently pending before the Appellate Division.]
The Law Division granted summary judgment for defendants, thereby dismissing GM's complaint. In making that determination, the court reasoned that because of the pending Tax Court appeal, it lacked jurisdiction to entertain GM's § 1983 claim and that defendants enjoyed absolute immunity.
On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded, holding that the Law Division had jurisdiction to determine GM's § 1983 claim and that defendants' immunity was not absolute.
Four months later, the United States Supreme Court decided National Private Truck Council v. Oklahoma Tax Commission. In National Private Truck, the Supreme Court prohibited state courts from providing relief under a § 1983 if state law provides an adequate remedy for relief from unconstitutional tax assessments.
The Supreme Court granted defendants' petition for certification.
HELD: State courts are prohibited from providing relief under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, if state law provides an adequate remedy for relief from unconstitutional tax assessments. Because New Jersey provides an adequate remedy, General Motors Corporation cannot maintain an action under § 1983 against defendants.
1. Two federal statutes govern this action: § 1983 and 28 U.S.C.A. 1341 (§ 1341), the Tax Injunction Act. Section 1983 provides a cause of action in state or federal courts to redress federal constitutional and statutory violations by state actors. By comparison, § 1341 prohibits federal courts from enjoining the collection of a state tax where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in state court. National Private Truck and its predecessors make it clear that Congress preserved an essential attribute of federalism by directing federal courts not to interfere in the administration of state tax systems. The Court's reading of National Private Truck leads it to conclude that the Supreme Court has determined that Congress did not intend claims involving state tax administration to be actionable under § 1983 in state or federal court, whether those claims arise from alleged violations of the interstate commerce or due process clauses. Thus, both state and federal courts must refrain from granting federal relief under § 1983 when there is an adequate legal remedy. (pp. 5-12)
2. To be adequate, a state remedy need only satisfy minimal procedural criteria; a state remedy merely needs to provide an opportunity sometime for a "full hearing and judicial determination" at which the taxpayer may raise all constitutional objections to the tax. The state remedy need not be identical to § 1983 remedies, be the best remedy available, be the most convenient remedy, or be equal to or comparable with other federal remedies. In New Jersey, there are several opportunities for taxpayers to raise constitutional objections to an added assessment: 1) a taxpayer may challenge the added assessment by appealing to the County Board of Taxation on or before December 1st of the year of the assessment; 2) the taxpayer may appeal the Board's decision to the Tax Court within forty-five days of the Board's judgment; and 3) a taxpayer may appeal from the Tax Court to the Appellate Division. Therefore, the remedies available under New Jersey law are adequate to preclude § 1983 suits in either federal or state courts. (pp. 12-18)
3. Because the issue is not before it, the Court need not reach the question whether discrimination, based on race, religion, gender, or any other suspect class, could constitute a violation of a taxpayer's constitutional rights. Nonetheless, the Court does not read the decisions of the Supreme Court as legitimizing any form of invidious discrimination. Furthermore, the Law Against Discrimination assures New Jersey citizens protection against such discrimination. (p. 18)
4. Important policy considerations also weigh in favor of precluding relief under § 1983 in state tax cases: the availability of such relief would permit taxpayers to circumvent the December deadline imposed by statute; to permit a longer statute of limitations in § 1983 tax cases would thwart express legislative intent and introduce uncertainty into the administration of state tax laws; allowing § 1983 actions in state tax cases would circumvent the statutory scheme for appealing the assessment; and a tax assessor who violates a taxpayers' constitutional rights runs the risk of removal. Therefore, there are ample reasons for the decision not to recognize the § 1983 action challenging the conduct of an assessor. (pp. 18-20)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for entry of a judgment and dismissal.
CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in ...