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Mobil Administrative Service Co. v. Mansfield Township

May 20, 1996

MOBIL ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICE CO., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MANSFIELD TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANT,



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kuskin

Zeta Consumer Products Corp. (Zeta) has moved, pursuant to R. 4:33-1, to intervene as of right as a party plaintiff in this 1995 local property tax appeal. Plaintiff Mobil Administrative Services Co. (Mobil) and defendant Mansfield Township oppose the motion.

I

On June 1, 1995 Mobil filed a complaint with the Tax Court appealing a Judgment of the Warren County Board of Taxation affirming the 1995 property tax assessment on Mobil's property which is designated as Block 1501, Lot 7 on the Mansfield Township Tax Map. On January 25, 1996, the Tax Court Management Office sent a Case Management Notice to the parties scheduling the matter for trial on April 16, 1996.

On August 30, 1995 Mobil, as seller, entered into a Contract of Sale (Contract) to sell the subject property to Zeta for a price of $3,550,000. The Contract contains no reference to the pending 1995 tax appeal and provides that local property taxes will be apportioned as of the date of closing of title. Closing occurred on September 27, 1995.

By letter dated December 22, 1995, Zeta's tax appeal attorneys advised Mobil's attorneys of Zeta's purchase of the subject property, inquired as to whether a 1995 property tax appeal was pending and requested that, if an appeal was pending, no settlement be made without Zeta's involvement. By letter dated January 11, 1996, Zeta's attorneys requested from Mobil's attorneys a copy of the 1995 tax appeal complaint and requested a telephone conference to discuss "joint prosecution of the case."

By another letter dated January 11, 1996 to the attorney for Mansfield Township, Zeta's attorneys requested a meeting to discuss the 1995 assessed value. By letter dated January 24, 1996, the attorney for Mansfield requested the attorneys for Zeta to provide copies of documents relating to Zeta's purchase of the property, an itemization of any personal property which Zeta contended was included in the sale and any other data which might be "helpful in evaluating the value of this property."

On March 5, 1996, Zeta filed its motion to intervene. Zeta failed to include in its motion papers "a pleading setting forth the claim . . . for which intervention is sought" as required by R. 4:33-3, but, pursuant to the court's direction at oral argument, Zeta has submitted a pleading containing allegations of excessive and discriminatory assessment that are essentially the same as those in Mobil's Tax Court complaint.

Between January 24, 1996 and March 13, 1996, Mobil and Mansfield Township reached a settlement agreement under which the 1995 assessment of $6,000,000 would be reduced to $5,500,000. On March 13, 1996, the governing body of the Township adopted a Resolution approving the settlement. On March 14, 1996, the attorneys for Mobil advised the Tax Court that the 1995 appeal was settled. A Stipulation of Settlement was submitted on March 29, 1996 but has not been processed for entry of Judgment pending decision of Zeta's motion.

II

Zeta's motion can be granted only if: 1) Zeta has standing to intervene; 2) Zeta's intervention will not violate the applicable statute of limitations or filing deadline; and 3) Zeta's application satisfies the requirements of R. 4:33-1. This Rule provides

Upon timely application anyone shall be permitted to intervene in an action if the applicant claims an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action and is so situated that the Disposition of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the ability to protect that interest, unless the applicant's interest is adequately represented by existing parties.

The issue of standing could be regarded as encompassed by the requirement of "an interest relating to the property" contained in the Rule, and the issue of statute of limitations could be regarded as encompassed by the requirement for "timely application" contained in the Rule. These two issues are, however, applicable to all litigation and, therefore, are more appropriately considered independently of the specific provisions of R. 4:33-1.

I deny Zeta's motion because Zeta lacks standing to intervene in this appeal. Under N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 only a "taxpayer" may appeal a local property tax assessment, by filing a petition of appeal with a county board of taxation or a complaint with the Tax Court by April 1 of the year of appeal. Under N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(a) only a "party who is dissatisfied with the judgment, action or determination of the county board of taxation" may file an appeal to the Tax Court. As of the April 3, 1995 filing deadline for a 1995 tax appeal (April 1 was a Saturday), Zeta was not a "taxpayer" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 54:3-21 because, as of such date, it had no interest in the subject property and no obligation to pay property taxes assessed to the property. See Village Supermarkets, Inc. v. West Orange Tp., 106 N.J. 628, 631-33 (1987). Similarly, as of July 13, 1995, the deadline for filing an appeal with the Tax Court from the judgment of the Warren County Board of Taxation, Zeta was not a taxpayer and was not (and is not today) a "party" dissatisfied with the judgment of the County Board. As of each filing deadline, therefore, Zeta lacked standing to appeal the subject assessments. Zeta cannot create such standing by its motion to intervene. "Clearly those without standing in the first instance are also without sufficient interest to warrant intervention." Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment on R. 4:33-2 (1996).

Zeta's position is analogous to that of William Leighton in Pogostin v. Leighton, 216 N.J. Super. 363 (App.Div. 1987). Mr. Leighton objected to the settlement of a class action lawsuit which challenged a proposed merger by Uniroyal, Inc. The trial court had certified the class as all holders of Uniroyal first preferred stock as of May 6, 1985 the date the merger agreement was signed. The merger agreement was approved by Uniroyal's shareholders on September 23, 1995. Leighton acquired his shares after such date. The Appellate Division held: "Since Leighton had not obtained his shares of Uniroyal first preferred by [May 6, 1985 or by September 23, 1985], he lacked standing to bring this appeal." Id. at 377. Since Zeta acquired its interest in the subject property after expiration of the appeal deadlines, it lacks standing to intervene.

Zeta contends that denial of its motion to intervene would deny its constitutional right to protect and assert its "interest" in the 1995 assessment and taxes with respect to the subject property. This contention is without merit. "Local property taxes are not assessed against a property owner, and a property owner has no personal liability for such taxes. Local property taxes are assessed against property, and, if unpaid, they become a lien against the property." Freehold Office Park v. Freehold Tp., 12 N.J. Tax 433, 440 (Tax 1992) (citation omitted). See also State v. Washington Tp., 73 N.J. 182, 184 (1977). Mobil, by filing a timely appeal, challenged the 1995 assessment against the subject property. That Zeta may disagree with, and cannot participate in, the outcome of the appeal does not result in denial of constitutional rights. "If the requirements of due process have been satisfied as to a prior property owner, then, with respect to local property tax, due process is satisfied as to a successor in title." ADP of New Jersey, Inc. v. Parsippany-Troy Hills Tp., 14 N.J. Tax 372, 377 (Tax 1994). See also Carriage Four Assocs. v. Teaneck Tp., 13 N.J. Tax 172, 180-81 (Tax 1993); Central Bergen Properties. v. Elmwood Park, 6 N.J. Tax 495, 498-99 (Tax 1984).

Zeta's interest in the 1995 tax assessment on the subject property was known, or at least knowable, by it when it signed the purchase Contact on August 30, 1995. Zeta could, therefore, have included provisions in the Contract which required its consent to the resolution of any pending tax appeal. The Contract is, however, barren of any such provisions. Apparently, Zeta made no inquiries as to the existence of a tax appeal, and had no expectancy, as of the date of Contract signing or as of the date of closing, that it ...


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