Taking a Property Tax Dispute to Court

With the Value Adjustment Board process winding down in most Florida counties, many taxpayers and some Property Appraisers are now contemplating whether to take the next step of filing a lawsuit in circuit court.  This post will explain the deadlines and requirements for filing a circuit court action, the effect of the VAB proceeding in court cases, and the difference between a VAB and court proceeding.

Deadline to File a Circuit Court Action

The timeframe to file a circuit court action in a property tax or exemption dispute is very short and, because the deadlines are jurisdictional, failure to file an action by the statutory deadline will result in permanent dismissal of your case.  Thus, anyone who is contemplating appealing a VAB decision to the circuit court is encouraged to consult with an attorney as soon as possible after receiving their VAB decision.

Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 194.171, those taxpayers who choose not to file a VAB petition must file their circuit court actions no later than 60 days after the certification of the tax roll, which generally occurs around mid-October in many counties.  Taxpayers who file a VAB petition, but are unsatisfied with the outcome can file an appeal of the VAB decision to the circuit court, but those appeals must be filed within 60 days of the date that the VAB renders its decision.  Pursuant to Fla. Stat. 196.151, an appeal of a VAB decision denying a homestead exemption must be filed within 15 days of the date that the VAB decision is rendered.

The question of when a VAB decision is “rendered” is a bit more complicated now that the Record of Decision forms contain two signature lines – one for the Chairman of the VAB, and another for the Clerk to sign when the decision is mailed.  At least one judge has indicated that he believes the 60 day deadline begins running on the date that the VAB Chairman signs the Record of Decision, even if the decision is mailed by the Clerk on a later date.  Thus, it would be wise to err on the side of filing the lawsuit within 60 days of the date the decision is signed by the VAB Chairman.

Of course, the county Property Appraisers also have the option of appealing an unfavorable VAB decision to circuit court.  While that situation is less common, if a Property Appraiser chooses to go that route, they must file an action against the taxpayer prior to extension of the tax roll or, if the tax roll was extended prior to completion of the VAB hearings, within 30 days of recertification.

Payment of Amount Admitted to be Owed

Prior to filing an action in circuit court, the taxpayer is also required to pay that year’s property taxes.   However, they have the option of paying their taxes in full or paying the amount that they admit in good faith to be owing.  As with the deadlines discussed above, this requirement is jurisdictional and failure to pay the taxes prior to filing the lawsuit will result in dismissal of the case.  In addition, it is imperative that the taxpayer continue to pay their taxes in a timely manner in future years while the lawsuit is pending, as the case may also be dismissed if any later years’ taxes become delinquent.

Effect of VAB Proceeding

Although referred to as an appeal of the VAB decision, a circuit court action in a property tax dispute is “de novo” – meaning that the parties will not be relying on the record created before the VAB, but rather will have the opportunity to present their case again, in full, before a circuit court judge.  Thus, regardless of how many procedural or evidentiary errors may have been committed by the VAB or the Special Magistrate, none of that matters once the case gets to circuit court.  That said, although the VAB decision is not dispositive and the parties are essentially getting a fresh start before the circuit court, it is important to note that the VAB proceedings are recorded.  Thus, it is certainly possible for one party to use the other parties’ recorded VAB testimony to impeach them at trial.

Lawsuits Against the VAB

Fla. Stat. 194.036 allows the Property Appraiser to sue the VAB for violations of the law if the Department of Revenue finds probable cause that a particular county VAB has consistently and continuously violated the intent of the law or administrative rules in its decisions.  Once the Department makes such a finding, the Property Appraiser has 20 days to file a lawsuit against the VAB.  If the Property Appraiser prevails, they are entitled to reversal of the VAB’s decisions, as well as an injunction against further violations of the law.

The Florida statutes do not provide a mechanism for an aggrieved taxpayer to sue the VAB over violations of the law and, although some taxpayers have filed such suits anyway, I have not seen any that were successful, as the courts tend to find that the taxpayer’s remedy is to sue the Property Appraiser, as discussed above.  However, the Department of Revenue’s VAB training materials indicate that written complaints alleging noncompliance with the law by the VAB, Special Magistrates, Clerk or parties should be sent to the VAB Attorney, with a copy to the Department of Revenue.

One Final Caveat . . .

Unlike a VAB hearing, where the rules of evidence are somewhat lax, litigants in circuit court are expected to abide by all of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence.  Moreover, the circuit courts are not bound by the various instructive materials issued by the Department of Revenue and the VABs.  Rather, they are free to interpret the tax statutes as they see fit.  Given the many different opinions as to how the new burden of proof and other procedural matters should be applied, it is entirely possible that the circuit courts could apply the new statutes very differently than the VABs.