On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket No. 9417-2008 in A-3445-09. On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket Nos. 7715-2007 and 9233-2008 in A-3446-09.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Espinosa, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 9, 2010, in A-3445-09, and March 1, 2011, in A-3446-09 - Decided Before Judges Parrillo, Yannotti*fn1 and Espinosa.
The opinion of the court was delivered by ESPINOSA, J.A.D.
In these appeals, we consider the application of the "interests of justice" relaxation of the requirement in N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b) that a taxpayer be current in its tax obligations for the year under review "[a]t the time that a complaint has been filed with the Tax Court seeking review of judgment of county tax boards[.]" The Legislature has not defined "interests of justice" and we have not previously considered the application of that provision. In light of a conflict in decisions in the Tax Court, we specifically address the question whether relaxation is required in the "interests of justice" under this statute if the tax payment requirement is satisfied before the return date of a motion to dismiss its complaint. We conclude that it is not.
Each of the appellants is a taxpayer and owner of property in Randolph Township (the Township). In each case, the taxpayer filed a complaint in the Tax Court appealing from a judgment entered by the Morris County Board of Taxation (the Board) that upheld an assessment on the taxpayer's property. Neither taxpayer was current in its tax obligations at the time its appeal was filed. In each case, the Township moved to dismiss the appeal for nonpayment of taxes, relying upon an inapplicable statute, N.J.S.A. 54:3-27, and the appeal was dismissed by the Tax Court. Thereafter, each taxpayer moved for reconsideration, arguing that dismissal had been based on the wrong statute and that the court should relax the payment requirement pursuant to an "interests of justice" exception. The taxpayers appeal from the Tax Court's denial of their motions. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
The requirement that municipal property taxes be paid prior to a taxpayer's challenge of a tax assessment is governed by two statutes, and differs slightly depending upon the nature of the appeal. N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 applies to direct appeals to the Tax Court and initial appeals to a county board of taxation, and provides in relevant part:
A taxpayer who shall file an appeal from an assessment against him shall pay to the collector of the taxing district no less than the total of all taxes and municipal charges due, up to and including the first quarter of the taxes and municipal charges assessed against him for the current tax year in the manner prescribed in [N.J.S.A.] 54:4-66.
It is undisputed that the appeals here are governed by N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b), which applies to appeals from the judgment of a county board of taxation to the Tax Court and provides:
At the time that a complaint has been filed with the Tax Court seeking review of judgment of county tax boards, all taxes or any installments thereof then due and payable for the year for which review is sought must have been paid.
Two differences in these statutes are relevant to these appeals, the nature of the tax payment requirement and when it must be satisfied. A taxpayer who files a direct appeal to the Tax Court, and therefore has not gone through an adjudicatory proceeding at the county board, is required by N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 to become current by paying all taxes outstanding through the first quarter of the current tax year. However, N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 does not specify when such payment must be made. The taxpayer who has first appealed the assessment to the county board and gone through an adjudication is only required by N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b) to pay all taxes that are due for the year under review but this obligation must be satisfied at the time the complaint is filed with the Tax Court.
In 1999, the Legislature amended both N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 and N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b) to "implement a series of recommendations promulgated by the Supreme Court's Committee on the Tax Court." Judiciary Committee, Statement to S. 673-208 (Feb. 23, 1998). Although the amendments did not modify the tax payment requirement of either statute, a provision was added to each statute for relaxation of the tax payment requirement in the "interests of justice." L. 1999, c. 208, §§ 5 and 14, respectively, eff. Sept. 17, 1999.
N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b), the statute applicable here, provides:
[T]he Tax Court may relax the tax payment requirement and fix such terms of payments as the interests of justice may require.
N.J.S.A. 54:3-27 provides:
[T]he county board of taxation may relax the tax payment requirement and fix such terms for payment of the tax as the interests of justice may require. If the county board of taxation refuses to relax the tax payment requirement and that decision is appealed, the Tax Court may hear all issues without remand to the county board of taxation as the interests of justice may require.
Because the right of appeal in the Tax Court is statutory, the appellant must comply with all applicable statutory requirements for the Tax Court to entertain the appeal. Gen. Trading Co. v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 83 N.J. 122, 127 (1980);
Royal Bradley Assocs. v. Bradley Beach Borough, 252 N.J. Super. 401, 403-04 (App. Div. 1991). The taxpayer who seeks to appeal from a judgment of the county board of taxation must therefore comply with the tax payment requirement in N.J.S.A. 54:51A-1(b) unless the Tax Court determines to exercise its limited discretion to "relax the tax payment requirement [or] fix such terms of payments as the interests of justice may require." However, the amendments did not provide any definition for the "interests of justice."
Plaintiff Dover-Chester Associates (Dover-Chester) is the owner of property in the Township (Block 47, Lots 51 and 53). Dover-Chester appealed the tax assessment for this property for 2008 to the Board, which entered a judgment upholding the assessment on May 22, 2008. On July 17, 2008, Dover-Chester filed a complaint with the Tax Court, seeking the review of judgments entered by the Board affirming the property assessments for Dover-Chester's lots for the year 2008. As of the time that ...