September 1, 2010
MICHAEL HEPPS AND JUDITH HEPPS, HUSBAND AND WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
TOWNSHIP OF CHERRY HILL, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND CAMDEN COUNTY BOARD OF TAXATION, DEFENDANT.
On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket Nos. 8795-2007 and 4548-2008.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted June 29, 2010
Before Judges Skillman and Wefing.
Plaintiffs appeal from an order entered by the Tax Court dismissing their complaint for lack of prosecution. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions on appeal, we affirm.
Plaintiffs purchased property in Cherry Hill in 1990. In the year 2000, plaintiff Michael Hepps called the municipal building to inquire about appealing his real estate taxes. He spoke to a municipal employee who inquired generally about why he wished to appeal. After speaking with the employee, he concluded that he did not have grounds to appeal and did not formally pursue the matter. He did, on an annual basis, call the municipal building to complain about his taxes but did not file an appeal. In 2006, during his annual call, he asked to be put through to a supervisor, and he spoke to Michael Raio, Cherry Hill's deputy tax assessor. In the course of that conversation, it was determined that the figure reported as the property's total assessed value was incorrect; in fact, it was twice what it should be. Mr. Raio issued a corrected assessed value for the subsequent tax years, which accordingly resulted in a significant reduction in the Heppses' real estate taxes.
Hepps maintained that he had been misinformed by the original individual to whom he spoke in 2000 as to the significance of the assessed value used to compute his taxes; he said she had told him that assessed value and fair market value were equivalent. Hepps demanded a refund for the taxes he had overpaid in the intervening years. When Cherry Hill declined, he filed suit.
The matter proceeded to trial after a period of brief discovery. Before getting underway, the Tax Court judge inquired as to the proof plaintiffs would be producing to establish the fair market value of their property for each of the years in question. Plaintiffs had elected not to hire an appraiser but contended that Raio had agreed in the course of several earlier telephone conversations that their property should have been assessed at that lower figure for all of the years in question.
Based upon plaintiffs' inability to establish fair market value for their property for each of the years in question, the Tax Court judge dismissed their complaint. Plaintiffs have appealed.
They argue they are entitled to relief under the "four corners" doctrine, the principle that "[t]he government must 'turn square corners' in its dealings with the public." New Concepts for Living, Inc. v. City of Hackensack, 376 N.J. Super. 394, 401 (App. Div. 2005). That case provides no basis to reverse the determination of the Tax Court judge. In that matter, we refused to permit the City to proceed with the sale of property owned by a non-profit entity for non-payment of taxes when the City had not properly notified that entity of its continuing obligation to update its entitlement to tax exemption. Id. at 402-03. Because of that failure, taxes had gone unpaid for two years. Ibid. Here, plaintiff Michael Hepps, who practiced law for more than thirty years and had extensive experience in real estate development, had a telephone conversation with an unnamed employee and waited eight years before seeking further relief. Further, his deposition makes clear that in the intervening years he consulted with one of the leading experts on real estate tax and was advised he had no basis to complain. In New Concepts, we concluded the City acted "inequitably... [to] avail itself of a technicality." Id. at 403. A search of this record reveals nothing comparable on the part of Cherry Hill.
Having reviewed the record on appeal, we are satisfied the Tax Court judge was correct in her determination, and we affirm, substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Menyuk.
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