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In re Appeal of Monroe Township From A Decision of Middlesex County Board of Taxation Affecting 1150 Condominium Units Being Part of Clearbrook Planned Retirement Community

November 8, 1996


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew

The present motion by Monroe Township seeks a determination by this court as to the correct filing fee or fees it must pay to have the Tax Court Management Office receive and file two complaints challenging a total of 2,390 separate condominium assessments for 1996 in two condominium complexes in Monroe Township (hereinafter Monroe).

Monroe submitted two complaints to the Tax Court Management Office on August 28, 1996 for filing. One of the complaints challenged the 1996 assessments of 1,150 condominium units located in a planned retirement community condominium complex known as Clearbrook. The second challenged the 1996 assessments of 1,240 condominium units located in another planned retirement community known as Rossmoor. With each complaint Monroe delivered a check of $175 to cover the cost of the filing fee. The Tax Court Management Office determined that the submitted filing fee was deficient because it was not in accord with R.8:12(c)(2) which requires a small claims filing fee of $25 for each separately assessed condominium of each separate condominium owner. *fn1 This would require filing fees in the amount of $59,750 for both complaints (2,390 x $25 = $59,750).

On August 29, 1996, the Management Office, by letter, notified counsel for Monroe of the deficient filing fee and that the two complaints would be marked "Received but not filed," pursuant to R.1:5-6(c). The notice informed counsel that if the appropriate filing fee were submitted within ten days of the date of the notice, filing would be deemed to have been made on the date the complaints were originally submitted, i.e., August 28, 1996, but if the correct fee were submitted after ten days, the filing date would be the date the Management Office received the appropriate filing fee.

Monroe did not pay the fee requested by the Management Office. Instead, on September 9, 1996, it filed the present motion seeking an order: (1) relaxing R.8:12(c)(2) with respect to filing fees pursuant to R.1:1-2 (the relaxation rule), (2) consolidating the two complaints submitted by Monroe since they involve common questions of law and fact and (3) staying the ten-day period for correcting filing deficiencies until there is a final determination of the present motion.

The Director of the Division of Taxation has requested permission to intervene in this proceeding for two purposes: first, to oppose the request of Monroe that it be excused from the payment of the required filing fees and second, to defend the assessments which Monroe is seeking to have reduced on appeal. Monroe does not oppose the Director's application for intervention primarily because the Director has statutory oversight authority of local property tax assessments. Even more important, however, is the fact that none of the affected condominium owners in this case has any reason to oppose Monroe, since Monroe seeks to benefit all of the owners with an assessment reduction. It is appropriate in our adversarial system, to permit the Director to intervene to defend the action of Monroe's previous assessor in increasing a number of assessments for tax year 1996 in order to protect the integrity of the tax system and to defend the rights of all of the other taxpayers in Monroe who would have to absorb any assessment reductions in this case. Therefore, the Director's motion to intervene in this matter is granted.

In order to have a full understanding of the motion presently before this Court, it would be helpful to review the factual circumstances giving rise to the controversy involving the assessments of the 2,390 condominium units at issue.

The papers submitted by Monroe and the Director of the Division of Taxation reveal that Clearbrook is a residential planned retirement community of condominiums consisting of 2,026 units with 29 basic models, while Rossmoor, also a planned retirement community, consists of 2,303 condominium units with 45 different models. Apparently, the current assessor's predecessor increased the assessments of 2,443 condominium units in the Clearbrook and Rossmoor complexes for tax year 1996.

Monroe's current assessor was appointed on March 25, 1996, approximately three months after the date the tax assessment lists are to be submitted to the county tax board for examination, revision and correction for tax year 1996. See N.J.S.A. 54:4-35 (assessment lists to be submitted to county board by January 10 of the tax year) and N.J.S.A. 54:4-46 (county board to examine, revise and correct tax lists). As soon as the current assessor took office, he received a number of telephone calls and personal visits from homeowners in the Rossmoor and Clearbrook condominium complexes complaining about increases in their local property tax assessments for tax year 1996.

The current assessor indicated that he reviewed the assessments that had been increased by his predecessor because of the inquiries that he had received. In his review, he concluded that his predecessor had made a number of significant errors including: (1) different housing units, selling at different prices, were identically assessed, (2) assessment of identical units were not consistently changed, (3) some changes in assessment were based upon incorrect models, (4) discrepancies between the location of models listed by the previous assessor and those listed by the builder, (5) alteration of assessments in units despite sale data showing the units to be within an acceptable and fair assessment variation range, which, therefore, should have been left unaltered; and (6) failure of the previous assessor to conduct a field inspection to determine change in value of units, but instead relied upon documentation already contained in the assessor's office.

Monroe's present assessor candidly admits that he was unable to make a specific determination of the propriety of the change in assessment with respect to a significant number of the properties, but he was, nonetheless, able to conclude that an appeal to the county board should be filed.

Accordingly, Monroe filed an appeal with the Middlesex County Board of Taxation on March 29, 1996 with respect to 2,443 individually assessed condominiums in Clearbrook and Rossmoor that had assessment increases from 1995 to 1996.

In accordance with N.J.A.C. 18:12A-1.6(c), the county tax administrator permitted Monroe to file the 2,443 appeals in a single petition with an attached schedule listing each separate condominium. The relief claimed by Monroe was to have the county board reduce all of the increased assessments to the level of the 1995 assessments.

During the hearing process, counsel for Monroe moved to have three of the five county tax commissioners recuse themselves to avoid an alleged appearance of impropriety. The three commissioners acquiesced in Monroe's request leaving only two commissioners to determine the 2,443 appeals. Since N.J.S.A. 54:3-25 requires a quorum of three commissioners to make determinations, the county tax board invoked a rule of necessity to call back one commissioner. The resulting quorum of three commissioners, however, could not agree with respect to any of the assessments under appeal. Two had voted in favor of assessment reductions and one voted for affirmance of the original assessments. Consequently, the county board entered 2,443 separate judgments affirming the original assessments.

As a result of the county board's denial of Monroe's petition of appeal, Monroe attempted to file the two complaints at issue with the Tax Court Management Office. As previously indicated, one complaint appealed 1,150 county tax board judgments for condominiums in Clearbrook and the second appealed 1,240 county board judgments for condominiums in Rossmoor for a total of 2,390 assessment appeals. The papers submitted do not explain why Monroe elected not to appeal 53 of the county board judgments with respect to 53 of the condominiums located in Clearbrook and Rossmoor.

Monroe first contends that the decision of the Tax Court Management Office which required additional filing fees under R.8:12(c)(2) was an incorrect interpretation of the filing fee requirements of R.8:12. It is Monroe's position that under R.8:12(a), all that Monroe must submit is $175 for each complaint.

The township maintains that it is not challenging the separate assessments placed on 2,390 individual condominium units, but rather is contesting the legality of a reassessment conducted by its previous tax assessor. Thus, the issue, according to Monroe, does not require valuation proofs as to each condominium, but only as to the propriety of the alleged reassessment. Monroe points out that R.8:12(a) requires that "a fee of [$175] *fn2 shall be paid to the Tax Court upon the filing of a complaint or counterclaim except as hereinafter provided." Emphasis added. The township then claims that there is no other provision in the rule to cover the present complaint, and therefore, its submitted filing fee of $175 for each complaint is sufficient under the filing fee rule. The argument is wide of the mark for a number of reasons.

First, the two complaints submitted by Monroe do not challenge any alleged illegal reassessment by the prior assessor, but rather seek to have the 1996 assessments on 2,390 condominiums reduced to the level of the 1995 assessments because of the alleged numerous errors made by the prior assessor in arriving at the 1996 increased assessments. The two complaints make no reference to an alleged invalid reassessment, but instead refer to individual assessments in the Clearbrook and Rossmoor condominium complexes. As the Director points out, Monroe's complaints expressly make the traditional claim in local property tax cases that the assessments in question are "in excess of the common level prevailing in the municipality."

As such, the two complaints filed by Monroe clearly fit within the language of R.8:12(c)(2) which provides, in pertinent part, for small claims:

"If a complaint . . . in an action to review a real property tax assessment includes more than one parcel of real property separately assessed pursuant to the provisions of . . . N.J.S.A. 46:8B-19 (Condominium Act), the filing fee shall be . . . $25 for the first separately assessed parcel of property of each separate property owner. . . .

The rule is clear on its face and supports the determination of the Tax Court Management Office in its request of Monroe for the submission of additional filing fees. There is nothing in the language of the rule or its history which would permit this court to interpret the rule as suggested by Monroe.

Second, even assuming that Monroe's challenge is to an alleged illegal reassessment which was limited to the condominium communities of Clearbrook and Rossmoor, Monroe overlooks the function and duties of a tax assessor, the nature of a proceeding in the Tax Court and the function of the Tax Court in its review of judgments of county boards of taxation.

Monroe insists that there is only one issue to be decided by this court and that is whether the prior assessor conducted and implemented an illegal reassessment. Therefore, according to Monroe there is no need for individual valuation hearings with respect to the 2,390 condominium units that were subjected to an increase in assessment for 1996. *fn3 As a consequence, the filing fee should be $175 for each complaint. To begin with, if Monroe's argument were correct there would be no need to file two complaints since each raises the alleged same issue, an illegal reassessment. More important, however, is that Monroe misperceives the role of the tax assessor. An assessor is not obliged to act as a caretaker of assessment lists between revaluations, relegated to maintaining and carrying forward from year to year the same assessments. The assessor has a statutory duty to scrutinize and adjust assessments as necessary in individual cases without a full municipal revaluation or reassessment. N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.

Our Supreme Court recognized this duty in Tri-Terminal Corp. v. Bor. of Edgewater, 68 N.J. 405 ...

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