Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 09-L-613 Honorable Judith M. Brawka, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman
JUSTICE BOWMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices McLaren and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.
Plaintiffs, Robert Fredericksen, David Wilson, Kay Phorasavong, James Magura, and Patti Smith, are residents of Kane County seeking refunds of property taxes paid from 2005 through 2008. Relying on section 20-175 of the Property Tax Code (35 ILCS 200/20-175 (West 2008)), they filed a complaint for declaratory judgment to this effect. Defendants, Supervisor of Assessments Mark Armstrong, the Kane County Board of Review, and the Kane County collector (collectively Kane County), moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to sections 2-619(a)(5) and 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(5), (a)(9) (West 2008)). The trial court granted Kane County's motion to dismiss, and plaintiffs appeal. We affirm.
On October 2, 2009, plaintiffs filed a complaint for declaratory judgment. Four of the plaintiffs alleged tax errors relating to homestead exemptions, and one plaintiff alleged a tax error based on a mistake in her property's square footage. The complaint alleged as follows. In 2009, plaintiff Fredericksen discovered that he was not being credited with the "Senior Citizens Homestead Exemption," so he notified Kane County of this error on March 27, 2009. Attached to the complaint was plaintiff Fredericksen's application for a senior citizens homestead exemption, dated March 27, 2009. On June 24, 2009, Kane County issued a "Certificate of Error" but stated that such certificate could be issued only for "the present tax cycle." In other words, Kane County executed the certificate of error for the tax year 2008, payable in 2009, but refused to apply the exemption retroactively. However, plaintiff Fredericksen alleged that "he was entitled to the Senior Citizens Homestead Exemption since 2005."
The complaint further alleged that plaintiffs Wilson, Phorasavong, and Magura had been issued "Certificates of Error" for 2009 with respect to general homestead exemptions. The three plaintiffs' applications for general homestead exemptions, dated in March and May of 2009, were attached to the complaint. As with plaintiff Fredericksen, plaintiffs Wilson, Phorasavong, and Magura had been informed by Kane County that the general homestead exemptions would be applied not retroactively, but toward only the 2009 tax cycle. However, these plaintiffs alleged that they had lived in their respective homes in excess of five years and were entitled to receive refunds for homestead exemptions during those previous years.
Finally, the complaint alleged that plaintiff Smith had been issued a "Certificate of Error" due to a mistake in the square footage of her home. Referring to the error as an "erroneous assessment," plaintiff Smith alleged that the mistake caused her to overpay her taxes for at least five years and that she was entitled to a tax refund for those years.
All of the plaintiffs relied on section 20-175 of the Property Tax Code (35 ILCS 200/20-175 (West 2008)), which creates a five-year window for certain tax refunds, to support their argument that they were entitled to receive refunds back to 2005. Plaintiffs did acknowledge in their complaint that, as a matter of custom and practice, Kane County had refused to honor "retroactive adjustments to erroneous assessments," such as general homestead exemptions, senior citizens homestead exemptions, and certificates of error based on erroneous assessments. However, plaintiffs maintained that this policy was "legally erroneous" and contravened the above provision of the Property Tax Code.
On November 28, 2009, Kane County moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to sections 2-619(a)(5) and 2-619(a)(9) of the Code, stating as follows. All plaintiffs had received certificates of error for the 2008 tax year and thus rebates on their 2008 tax bills. In addition, all plaintiffs were requesting the court to order that the certificates of error be made retroactive for at least five years pursuant to section 20-175 of the Property Tax Code. However, it was undisputed that none of the plaintiffs had filed any applications or requests for relief from taxing authorities before 2009. With respect to the plaintiffs seeking retroactive homestead exemptions, none of them had filed an application for a homestead exemption before 2009. Kane County argued that the failure to file an application for a homestead exemption precluded a refund, because such an application was a prerequisite to receiving the benefit of a tax exemption. Case law was clear that each tax year was a discrete and separate cause, Kane County argued, without res judicata effect on subsequent years. In addition, Kane County argued that plaintiff Smith's claim based on a mistake in square footage failed because she had never filed a tax objection complaint "for any of the years in question." According to Kane County, plaintiff Smith sought relief under the wrong section of the Property Tax Code, rendering her claim untimely.
Plaintiffs responded to Kane County's motion to dismiss. To counter Kane County's argument that the Property Tax Code allowed plaintiffs a refund for only the current tax cycle, plaintiffs asserted that section 20-175 allows taxpayers the right to claim refunds of their overpaid taxes in conformance with the limitations period set forth in that section, which is five years. Plaintiffs also argued that the Property Tax Code does not contain an application requirement for general homestead exemptions. Moreover, although the Property Tax Code allows "the County" to promulgate rules regarding exemptions, plaintiffs argued that no such rules had been developed in Kane County.
Kane County replied to plaintiffs' response and maintained that section 15-10 of the Property Tax Code does require the filing of an application to receive a general homestead exemption. See 35 ILCS 200/15-10 (West 2008). Also, Kane County refuted plaintiffs' argument that it had no rules in place regarding the filing of applications of homestead exemptions. According to Kane County, the attachments to plaintiffs' own complaint, which were exemption applications, evidenced that applications for homestead exemptions in Kane County needed to be signed and filed.
B. Trial Court's Decision
Following a hearing, the trial court issued a written decision on March 9, 2010. In its nine-page ruling, the court granted Kane County's motion to dismiss, reasoning as follows. Plaintiffs Fredericksen, Wilson, Phorasavong, and Magura, referred to by the court as the "Homestead Plaintiffs," all sought refunds of property taxes paid from 2005 through 2008, "for previously unclaimed homestead exemptions." These Homestead Plaintiffs received certificates of error in 2009 for the tax year 2008 "for either an unclaimed senior [citizens] or general homestead exemption." On the other hand, plaintiff Smith sought a refund of property taxes overpaid from 2005 ...