NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued May 28, 2013
On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket No. 6793-2012.
John F. Casey argued the cause for appellant (Wolff & Samson, P.C., attorneys; Mr. Casey and Lindsay A. Smith, on the briefs).
Jennifer L. Cordes argued the cause for respondent (Eckert, Seamans, Cherin, & Mellott, LLC, attorneys; David M. Roskos and Ms. Cordes, on the brief).
Before Judges Parrillo and Fasciale.
Plaintiff Omega Self Storage of NJ, LLC (Omega) appeals from a November 15, 2012 judgment of the Tax Court dismissing plaintiff's complaint with prejudice for want of jurisdiction, finding plaintiff did not have standing to bring a 2012 tax appeal. The Tax Court based its ruling on the fact that, at the time the appeal was filed, plaintiff was a contract purchaser for the property at issue, and a contract purchaser is not a "taxpayer feeling aggrieved by the assessed valuation of the taxpayer's property" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. We disagree and reverse.
The property at issue is located on Lawrence Station Road in Lawrence Township (Township) and was assessed by the Township at a total of $1, 747, 000 for tax year 2012. At the time of this assessment, the property was owned by Lawrence Station Storage, LLC (Lawrence Station), but eventually sold to Omega pursuant to a contract of sale entered into on December 21, 2011. Although the anticipated closing date was in February 2012, Omega did not obtain ownership of the property until May 30, 2012, when the contract of sale closed.
The contract contained a mortgage contingency clause and also allowed the purchaser to cancel the transaction if it did not approve title (up to five days before closing) or was otherwise dissatisfied with its investigation of the property. Paragraph 16 contained a default provision stating that in the event of a breach or default by seller, buyer's "sole and exclusive remedy" was to terminate the contract and receive a return of its deposit.
In the meantime, in anticipation of the April 1, 2012 filing deadline, Omega filed a complaint with the Tax Court on March 29, 2012, challenging the 2012 assessment on the property. In paragraph one of the complaint, it was alleged that "plaintiff is the taxpayer of the properties [sic] shown on the local property tax case information statements [sic] attached to the FACE of the complaint." Lawrence Station, the owner of the property at the time the complaint was filed, was not mentioned in the complaint or the accompanying case information statement, and did not file its own complaint challenging the 2012 assessment. Moreover, nothing in the contract of sale obligated Lawrence Station to file a tax appeal for 2012 to protect Omega's putative interest.
On August 31, 2012, three months after Omega had taken title to the property and five months after the filing of plaintiff's complaint, the Township moved to dismiss the complaint for want of subject matter jurisdiction. The Township argued that plaintiff lacked standing to bring the 2012 tax appeal because, at the time the complaint was filed, plaintiff was only a contract purchaser for the property, not its title owner, and therefore, was not a "taxpayer feeling aggrieved by the assessed valuation" for purposes of N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. Plaintiff opposed the motion, contending that as the contract purchaser, its interest in the property was known to the Township at the time the complaint was filed and that, as the party responsible for the 2012 tax bill, it was an aggrieved taxpayer adversely affected by the Township's assessment.
In its written opinion of November 15, 2012, the Tax Court judge granted the Township's motion and dismissed plaintiff's complaint with prejudice, concluding that as a contract purchaser only, plaintiff did not have standing to bring the 2012 tax appeal for the property. The judge reasoned:
Omega did not have title to the subject property on March 29, 2012. It was not at that time responsible for the payment of taxes assessed against the property and was not liable for the debts of the entity that owned the property on the filing date. At best, Omega had a contractual right to purchase the property on a date after the filing deadline. It is true that the existence of the contract made evident Omega's potential liability for a portion of the taxes due on the property for 2012. This potential liability, however, was insufficient to vest in Omega the financial interest necessary to satisfy the strict jurisdictional requirements of N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. As noted by Judge Kuskin in Mobil [Administrative Services Co. v. Mansfield Township, 15
N.J.Tax. 583 (Tax 1996), aff'd, 17 N.J.Tax. 509 (App. Div. 1997)], Omega could easily have addressed its potential liability for the 2012 taxes on what it perceived to be an excessive assessment by requiring in its contract that the owner of the subject property ...