The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 15, 2012

Court overturns ruling in property tax case

By Tina Alvey
Register-Herald Reporter

— UNION — The Monroe County Commission briefly acknowledged Wednesday that the county will likely have to argue two tax assessment cases in circuit court in light of last month’s Supreme Court ruling reversing the lower court’s original decisions.

Both the Assessor and the Commission are named as defendants in the lawsuits filed by Mountain America LLC, and others, challenging tax assessments in the Walnut Springs Mountain Reserve.

Mountain America, a land development company, has been involved in the 1,000-acre Walnut Springs residential community for several years. Most of the tracts in the development are owned individually, with Mountain America owning the balance. Development of the property began in 2004.

According to the court file, Monroe County Assessor Donna Huffman classified Walnut Springs as its own “neighborhood” in 2007 because the properties there had sold for “significantly more than the surrounding land.” That resulted in much higher property taxes being assessed against those parcels than the assessments of surrounding properties.

Mountain America and the individual taxpayers challenged the 2007 assessments as “excessive and unequal,” which they said violated their right to equal protection under the law. They also claimed the County Commission, sitting as a board of equalization and review, denied them their right to due process.

Both the board of E&R and the Monroe Circuit Court ruled against the petitioners, and the state Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed those rulings, saying that Mountain America’s constitutional rights had not been violated.

Mountain America continued to challenge the constitutionality of the property tax assessments in subsequent years, including tax years 2008 and 2009.

The Circuit Court summarily dismissed both of those challenges, maintaining that the claims being made were identical to the previously-litigated complaints upon which the Supreme Court had already ruled. In so doing, Circuit Judge Robert Irons invoked the doctrine of res judicata, which bars subsequent litigation when an identical cause of action is brought before the court.

Mountain America then appealed the Circuit Court’s rulings on those 2008 and 2009 assessments to the Supreme Court, claiming that Irons had improperly applied the doctrine of res judicata to bar the tax assessment appeals.

In a ruling issued Oct. 19, the high court found the Circuit Court erred in applying res judicata, citing a case with what the written opinion calls “a nearly identical factual scenario.” That previous appeal was styled “In re United Carbon Co. Assessment.”

In that case, the Supreme Court rejected the application of res judicata because “the claim for taxes of one year is not the same claim as that for taxes of another year.”

In this most recent pair of Mountain America appeals, the high court ruled that its earlier affirmation of the Circuit Court’s decision regarding 2007 ad valorem property tax assessments “does not foreclose Mountain America’s right to now pursue similar challenges regarding its 2008 and 2009 ad valorem property tax assessments” insofar as the demands for the tax in the subsequent years are different from the original demand.

Thus, the cases concerning the 2008 and 2009 property taxes were remanded back to the Circuit Court with directions to the judge to “consider the merits of each of these claims.”

No further hearings in the cases have yet been scheduled in Monroe Circuit Court, according to the Circuit Clerk’s office.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com