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AXELROD v. EARHART

May 18, 1983

DELORIS AXELROD, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ROBERT EARHART, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shadur, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Fifteen Lake County taxpayers originally brought this putative class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1988") against officials and governmental bodies responsible for administering Lake County's real estate tax assessment system.*fn1 Focusing on the years 1977 through 1979, plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint (the "Complaint") attacks the system on due process and equal protection grounds. All remaining defendants in this case (Lake County, the Board and its members and Jasper) now move pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. ("Rule") 12(b)(1) and 12(h)(3) to dismiss this lawsuit for want of subject matter jurisdiction. For the reasons stated in this memorandum opinion and order, that motion is granted.

Findings of Fact*fn2

To illuminate the issues raised by the motion to dismiss, this section of the opinion will first explore the state remedies available to taxpayers who wish to challenge their real estate tax assessments. It will then turn to plaintiffs' own experiences in pursuing those remedies.

Any dissatisfied taxpayer must first file an assessment complaint with the Board. Shortly thereafter (between six months to a year before the actual tax bill arrives, for Illinois tax bills are rendered during the year following the assessment year) the taxpayer is afforded a hearing, at which he or she must "[b]e prepared to discuss the market value of [his] property as of January 1", of the assessment year (Pl.Ex. A*fn3). In addition the taxpayer may tender (in advance of the hearing) a list of no more than three comparable properties assessed at lower rates. To receive serious consideration from the Board, the taxpayer must have cooperated with the field appraisers who visited the property before the hearing to conduct an independent appraisal. In arriving at its determination the Board compares that appraisal with the original assessment. Because of the large number of assessment complaints filed each year, the Board schedules hearings at 15-minute intervals.

If the taxpayer is dissatisfied with the Board's disposition of his or her complaint, he or she has two mutually exclusive remedies, both of which afford de novo consideration. One option is an appeal to the state Property Tax Appeal Board ("PTAB"). Ill. Rev.Stat. ch. 120, § 592.4 makes PTAB's final determinations reviewable by the Circuit Court of Lake County. Alternatively the taxpayer may pay the contested tax under protest, then file a tax objection when the Lake County Collector files an application for judgment before the Circuit Court.

None of the plaintiffs properly availed himself or herself of the second option in any of the three years at issue. Several plaintiffs attempted to do so in 1978, but the Circuit Court dismissed their tax objections because they had either failed to exhaust their administrative remedy (before the Board) or had already invoked the PTAB remedy for that year. As for the first alternative, none of the plaintiffs (or of the six other putative class members identified by plaintiffs) sought relief from both the Board and PTAB in all three tax years.*fn4 However, in each of those years at least one plaintiff did fully exploit the two-step second alternative.

To prove their jurisdictional allegations, plaintiffs have focused on the experiences of plaintiffs Gilbert Bogen ("Bogen") and Deloris Axelrod ("Axelrod") before the Board and PTAB. They will be dealt with in turn.

As the following table reveals, PTAB did lower Bogen's assessment in 1978 — but nearly two-thirds of that reduction*fn5 was restored by the higher 1979 assessment (imposed by local appraisers only a week after the PTAB action):

Bogen Assessment

Year          Assessor            Board                    PTAB
1977            ---               No Complaint               ---
1978          $30,590             $30,590                  $25,280
1979          $28,760             $28,760                  $28,750

Upset over that turn of events, Bogen wrote PTAB Chairman Albert Seppi for an explanation. Seppi responded (1) PTAB decisions are binding on Lake County only for the tax year involved and (2) Bogen's only recourse was to appeal to the Board and, if necessary, to PTAB. Bogen followed that recommended course without success (as the table shows, PTAB reduced the assessor's appraisal by a mere $10).

Axelrod encountered a different problem in her dealings with PTAB: its refusal to entertain constitutional objections to assessment practices in general. In rejecting her 1981 appeal, PTAB stated:

  The record also contains an extensive discussion of
  assessment practices in the township. However, the
  Property Tax Appeal Board may only make decisions with
  respect to specific properties appealed to it.*fn6

This then is the factual backdrop against which defendants' motion to dismiss must itself be appraised. That analysis, though it ...


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