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Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Tucker

OPINION FILED JULY 21, 1980.

COMMONWEALTH EDISON COMPANY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

TERENCE A. TUCKER, LAKE COUNTY COLLECTOR, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Lake County; the Hon. JOHN L. HUGHES, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE LINDBERG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied August 20, 1980.

A single, narrow issue is presented by this appeal: whether injunctive relief is available to challenge allegedly improper imposition by a county board of review of a multiplier adjusting personal property tax assessment. *fn1

Public Act 79-703, effective September 3, 1975, amended the Revenue Act of 1939 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 120, par. 482 et seq.) reducing the value of personal property for assessment purposes from 50% to 33 1/3% of fair cash value (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 120, par. 502). Plaintiff, Commonwealth Edison Company (Edison), is the owner of a substantial amount of personal property in Lake County. According to the allegations in its complaint, in 1975, pursuant to an advice letter from the supervisor of assessments of Lake County, Edison scheduled the personal property listed on its personal property tax returns at 25% of fair cash value. The Lake County Board of Review had the duty to equalize valuations — that is to either increase or decrease the assessments within an entire township or county if substantial differences as to the level of assessments are found to exist. For the 1975 tax year, the board determined that substantial differences existed in assessments of real property, and decided to apply an equalization factor to both real and personal property in Lake County. Consequently, it certified a county-wide equalization factor or multiplier of 1.4051 for personal property.

Application of this multiplier to Edison's personal property valuation increased the assessed valuation from 25% to 37.1275% of fair cash value. Thereafter, the Illinois Department of Local Government Affairs certified an additional equalization factor for Lake County of .9865. This multiplier lowered Edison's assessment to 36.63% of fair cash value. At this valuation, Edison's personal property liability for 1975 was $3,754,148.67.

On the theory that the correct assessed valuation figure was 31.32% of fair cash value (this figure is apparently the valuation for real property in the county), Edison tendered payment of its 1975 personal property taxes less $543,976.15, the amount representing the difference between 37.1275% and 31.32% of fair cash value. Defendant county collector refused to accept this tender, and Edison filed a mandamus action seeking to compel acceptance. In November of 1976, the Circuit Court of Lake County entered an order determining that the court was not authorized to force the defendant to accept partial payment of a tax bill. This order also provided that the defendant was to retain the disputed $543,976.17 in a separate interest-bearing fund pending court disposition of Edison's claim that the 1975 multiplier was improper. This order was not appealed by either party.

• 1 Edison then commenced the instant equitable action in the Circuit Court of Lake County. Defendant responded with a motion to dismiss arguing that the complaint was insufficient to confer equitable jurisdiction *fn2 on the court. The trial court agreed and dismissed Edison's suit on the grounds that (1) Edison had an adequate remedy at law, and (2) that before there could be equity jurisdiction, it must be alleged that the unauthorized tax constitutes the entire assessment. Edison filed a motion for rehearing in response to which the court modified its previous order with respect to certain procedural issues, but in essence re-affirmed its dismissal of Edison's complaint. Edison appeals.

Three subissues are presented by this appeal: (1) whether the trial court erred in finding that Edison had an adequate remedy at law, (2) whether equitable relief in a personal property tax case requires, in addition to the absence of an adequate remedy at law, allegations of some special equitable ground such as constructive fraud, and (3) whether the exception granting equitable relief for an "unauthorized tax" is applicable to this case.

I.

• 2 As a general rule equity will not grant relief in a property tax case if there is an adequate remedy at law. (Clarendon Association v. Korzen (1973), 56 Ill.2d 101, 306 N.E.2d 299.) Edison argues that it does not have an adequate remedy at law as there is no specific statutory provision for correcting erroneous impositions of equalization factors on personal property tax assessments. Specifically Edison argues that payment of taxes under protest is limited to contests of the legality of the tax rate. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 120, par. 676.) Similarly, Edison claims that it is precluded from seeking administrative review before the Board of Review as by law a complaint must be filed within 20 days of the issuance of assessment lists (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 120, par. 584). In the instant case this 20-day period lapsed before the Board of Review certified the disputed multiplier. Finally Edison argues that the option of simply refusing any payment was not open to it as this would require it to withhold the nondisputed $3.2 million thereby seriously disrupting local finances, as well as exposing Edison to substantial penalties.

The county collector does not directly dispute the above arguments. Instead, he points out the remedy suggested in section 111.1 of the Revenue Act. This section provides in pertinent part:

"In any county other than a county of over 1,000,000 population, any taxpayer dissatisfied with the decision of a board of review as such decision pertains to the assessment of his property for taxation purposes, or any taxing body that has an interest in the decision of the board of review on an assessment made by any local assessment officer, may, within 30 days after the date of written notice of the decision of the board of review, appeal such decision to the Property Tax Appeal Board for review." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 120, par. 592.1.)

In an opinion dated February 2, 1978, the Illinois Attorney General reasoned that since the application of a township multiplier was "clearly a decision of the board of review pertaining to the assessment of a taxpayer's property for tax purposes, such application may be appealed to the Property Tax Appeal Board" under section 111.1. 1978 Ill. Att'y Gen. Op. 68, 70.

Edison argues that section 111.1 was not meant to apply to multipliers. Specifically Edison claims: (1) that "assessment" and "equalization" are distinct functions, (2) that decisions of a board of review are only appealable under section 111.1 if written notice has been given to the individual taxpayer involved, and (3) that the actual level of equalization was not finalized, and therefore reviewable, until the Department of Local Government Affairs ...


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