December 18, 2007
CLARENCE PAUL ROBERTS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
CITY OF NEWARK, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, 6386-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 26, 2007
Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.
Appellant, Clarence P. Roberts, owns a single family home in the City of Newark, which in 2002 was mistakenly assessed as a three-family dwelling and valued at $101,200. When appellant notified the city of the error, the fair market value of the property was reduced to $99,800 and the description was corrected. Appellant then filed a petition appealing the revised assessment with the Essex County Board of Taxation, which in 2005 lowered the fair market value to $89,800. Aggrieved by this outcome, appellant turned to the Tax Court, where his pro se complaint was dismissed with prejudice as he failed to supply the Court with "an appraisal report and/or list of comparable sales and/or rentals" as required by a case management order entered January 23, 2006. For the reasons set forth below, we vacate the dismissal and reinstate the Tax Court appeal.
To this date the city has not filed a brief or statement in opposition to this appeal as required by R. 2:6-4(d). The city's response was initially due January 22, 2007, and that deadline was extended twice. Counsel for the city contacted the presiding judge of this panel to request a further extension. It was anticipated that counsel for the city would appear at oral argument on November 26, 2007, to address the issue. No one was present on the city's behalf. At oral argument, appellant contended that the city should not be allowed further postponements for purpose of filing a response. His position is understandable, as he has been attempting to resolve his tax assessment dispute for nearly five years.
Appellant's form "Petition of Appeal" filed with the Essex County Board of Taxation enumerates five "comparable sales," which he mistakenly assumed would be automatically forwarded to the Tax Court for its consideration. Thus, appellant misconstrued the Tax Court's management order of January 23, 2006, which required him to produce either a real estate appraisal report "and/or" comparable sales within sixty days, or face dismissal of his complaint. Appellant did not supply additional paperwork, in fact, asserted during oral argument before us that the judge told him that without an actual appraisal, which he claims he cannot afford, his case would be dismissed.*fn1 Appellant correctly points out that a list of comparable sales has been in his Board of Taxation file since at least 2005, and that he could readily have supplied them to the Tax Court judge if the requirement had been explained to him. It is also true that the language of the management order, a copy of which was supplied by the appellant, clearly states that either an appraisal and/or comparable sales must be provided.
Rule 1:1-2 provides that all court rules "shall be construed to secure a just determination, simplicity in procedure, fairness in administration and the elimination of unjustifiable expense and delay. Unless otherwise stated, any rule may be relaxed or dispensed with by the court in which the action is pending if adherence to it would result in an injustice." The management order as to discovery in this case was in accord with R. 8:6-1(b)(2). In the spirit of R. 1:1-2, given the city's failure to oppose this appeal and appellant's unrepresented status, the rules relating to pre-trial proceedings and discovery will be relaxed to allow him to now submit comparable sales and finally have his claim heard on its merits. The matter is therefore remanded for that purpose. Appellant has requested that if the matter is remanded, it be heard by a different judge in light of his misunderstanding with the original judge. We leave it to the discretion of the Tax Court as to whether the matter should be reassigned. We do not retain jurisdiction.