Property owners who would like to appeal their property tax assessments are faced with two choices in Florida – they can file a petition to the county value adjustment board or they can file a lawsuit in circuit court. Some attorneys contend that filing a VAB petition is a waste of time as the deck is stacked against the petitioner in those proceedings. I disagree, and think that there are pros and cons to both venues. This post will summarize the benefits of filing a VAB petition versus the benefits of going straight to circuit court.
Benefits of Filng a VAB Petition
1. Limited Discovery Available to Property Appraiser. In a circuit court action, both parties have the right to obtain documents from the other side, and to question the opposing parties under oath through written Interrogatories or in a deposition before a court reporter. In a VAB proceeding, however, the Property Appraiser is at a distinct disadvantage in that, while the Property Appraiser’s documents are public records that must be made available upon request, the property owner need not disclose any documents other than the documents they intend to use as evidence. While the Property Appraisers technically have statutory authority to obtain a subpoena for the production of taxpayer records, this mechanism is rarely used, except for very large taxpayers. On the other hand, in a lawsuit, both parties have the ability to obtain documents from each other, including documents that the property owner may not want to produce.
2. Value Disputes Heard by Appraisers. If your dispute is solely a dispute over appraisal methodology and does not involve any complex legal issues, the VAB can be a good choice of venue, as value disputes in larger counties are heard by licensed appraisers, as opposed to judges, who may have very little knowledge of appraisal theories and concepts.
3. Attorneys Not Required. Normally, corporations, LLC and other such entities must be represented by an attorney. However, in VAB proceedings, taxpayers are allowed to be represented by an unlicensed agent if they desire. Please note, however, that testimony at a VAB hearing is recorded and may be used against you in a later court case. Thus, if you think there is any chance that you might want to take the case to court, it would be advisable to be represented by counsel at your VAB hearing.
4. Lower Costs. The fee for filing a VAB petition is much lower than the cost of filing a circuit court action. Also, for those who desire legal counsel, most attorneys will handle VAB petitions on a flat fee or contingent fee basis.
Benefits of Filing a Circuit Court Action
1. Power to Subpoena Witnesses. One of the most important benefits of a circuit court action is that, in a court proceeding, your attorney can subpoena witnesses to testify on your behalf and can depose adverse witnesses prior to trial. Thus, testimony and evidence that may be unobtainable in a VAB proceeding can sometimes by compelled in a court proceeding.
2. More Preparation Time. In a VAB proceeding, the Clerk is only required to give you 25 days’ notice of the hearing and, in many smaller counties, the hearings are held very soon after the deadline for VAB petitions has expired. Thus, if you need more than a few weeks to prepare your case, VAB is probably not the best venue for you.
3. Cases Heard by Judge. If your case involves a complex legal or evidentiary issue, you may be better off taking your case to circuit court, where it will be decided by a judge. In contrast, value disputes before VABs are heard by either an appraiser or, in smaller counties, by the value adjustment board itself, which may not include anyone with a legal background.
4. Flexibility in Scheduling. One of the biggest disadvantages of the VAB process is the lack of flexibility in the scheduling of hearings. In small counties, the VAB may only have two meeting dates available for your hearing. In larger counties that hold hearings in front of special magistrates, the Clerk generally will not consult with the petitioner before scheduling the hearing and, once a hearing is scheduled, it can only be re-scheduled once, unless the petitioner shows good cause. In court cases, on the other hand, the parties’ attorneys coordinate the scheduling of hearings around the parties’ schedules and hearings may be rescheduled even without good cause.
5. Time to Present Case. Finally, if you have multiple witnesses and boxes of exhibits to present, a VAB hearing may not be a good venue, as only a limited amount of time is allocated to each petitioner.
As a general rule, cases involving multiple witnesses and complex legal issues should probably be filed in circuit court. However, even in those cases, there may be a benefit to filing a VAB petition if you would prefer to have your case heard by a licensed appraiser or if you are concerned about being forced to turn over confidential business documents in discovery. For simpler cases, filing a VAB petition can be an inexpensive way to challenge a property tax assessment without waiving your right to file a circuit court action if you are unsuccessful before the VAB.