Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division
from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois Appeal No.
1-15-1318 No. 15 CH 2321 The Honorable Mary Lane Mikva, Judge
from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois Appeal No.
1-16-0602 No. 15 CH 169 The Honorable Peter Flynn, Judge
JUSTICE DELORT delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices Cunningham and Rochford concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 Illinois law allows property owners to claim a partial
exemption, commonly known as the "homestead exemption,
" from real estate taxes for their primary residence.
Plaintiff Daniel Cuevas claimed homestead exemptions on 11
different properties which he owned in Cook County. Only one
of those properties was his principal residence. The county
assessor, defendant Joseph Berrios, convened an
administrative hearing to determine the relevant facts
regarding Cuevas's exemptions and the amount he might owe
due to any improper exemptions. The Department of Erroneous
Homestead Exemption Administrative Hearings (DEHE) determined
that Cuevas improperly took exemptions on 10 of the 11
properties and that he owed $91, 984.85 for back
taxes, penalties, and interest for tax years 2007 to 2012.
2 Cuevas filed two lawsuits challenging this action. In case
No. 15 CH 2321 (the class action case), the circuit court
upheld the legality of the administrative hearing process and
the underlying statute against a host of challenges asserted
by Cuevas. Cuevas also filed an administrative review case,
No. 15 CH 169. In that case, the circuit court reversed the
DEHE's determination that Cuevas was responsible for back
taxes for the 2007 tax year. We affirm the circuit
court's judgments in both cases.
4 In 2013, the General Assembly adopted section 9-275 of the
Property Tax Code (35 ILCS 200/9-275 (West Supp. 2013)),
which creates a process by which Cook County can recover
delinquent taxes owed by taxpayers who improperly claimed
homestead exemptions. Pub. Act 98-93 (eff. July 16, 2013)
(adding 35 ILCS 200/9-275). To that end, the law requires the
Cook County assessor to include certain admonitions in his
periodic assessment notices to taxpayers, including a list of
any homestead exemptions taken for the subject property, the
eligibility requirements for homestead exemptions, and
"information regarding penalties and interest that may
be incurred" due to an erroneous exemption "in a
previous taxable year." 35 ILCS 200/9-275(b) (West Supp.
5 Section 9-275(l) also required the assessor to
establish an "amnesty period, " running from July
16, 2013 to December 31, 2013. 35 ILCS 200/9-275(l)
(West Supp. 2013). During that period, taxpayers who claimed
improper homestead exemptions for "tax year[s] prior to
the 2013 tax year" were allowed to pay their delinquent
taxes without interest or penalties. Id. The law
granted those taxpayers a benefit in return. The Cook County
clerk was to "abate and not seek to collect any interest
or penalties that may be applicable and shall not seek civil
or criminal prosecution for any taxpayer for tax years prior
to 2013." Id. However, taxpayers such as Cuevas
who had claimed three or more improper homestead exemptions
were not eligible for the amnesty program. Id.
6 Since its original enactment in 2013, section 9-275 has
been amended five times. See Pub. Act 98-756, § 195
(eff. July 16, 2014); Pub. Act 98-811, § 5 (eff. Jan. 1,
2015); Pub. Act 98-1143, § 5 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015); Pub.
Act 99-143, § 325 (eff. July 27, 2015); Pub. Act 99-851,
§ 5 (eff. Aug. 19, 2016). The version of section 9-275
at issue here allows the assessor, after giving prior notice,
to place tax liens against real estate owned by persons who
claimed more than one homestead exemption. 35 ILCS
200/9-275(c) (West Supp. 2013). The assessor must give
affected owners advance notice of his intent to lien their
properties. Section 9-275(c) classifies these taxpayers into
two groups. The first group includes taxpayers who claimed
one or two improper exemptions during any of the "3
assessment years immediately prior to assessment year"
in which the assessor issues the pre-lien notice.
Id. For these taxpayers, the proposed lien amount
includes only the omitted taxes and 10% annual interest. 35
ILCS 200/9-275(f) (West Supp. 2013). As noted above,
taxpayers in the first group could take advantage of the
amnesty period. The second group includes taxpayers such as
Cuevas, who claimed three or more erroneous homestead
exemptions during the preceding six assessment years. 35 ILCS
200/9-275(c) (West Supp. 2013). For this group, the proposed
lien amount also includes a penalty of 50% of the omitted
taxes on the subject property. 35 ILCS 200/9-275(f) (West
Supp. 2013). Property owners who receive a pre-lien notice
may contest it within 30 days of service by requesting a
hearing before an independent hearing officer appointed by
the assessor. 35 ILCS 200/9-275(e) (West Supp. 2013). Section
9-275(e) provides that the hearing officer's decision is
subject to review under the Administrative Review Law (735
ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 2014)).
7 If the owner does not request a hearing or does not prevail
at the hearing, the assessor may record a lien against the
property in the above-described amounts. 35 ILCS 200/9-275(f)
(West Supp. 2013). When the lien is paid, the assessor
releases the lien, the portion of the proceeds attributable
to delinquent taxes are paid to the various taxing agencies,
the interest is paid to the county, and the penalties are
paid to the assessor to offset administrative costs. 35 ILCS
200/9-275(k) (West Supp. 2013).
8 On or about May 27, 2014, the assessor sent Cuevas notices
of intent to record a tax lien on 11 different properties.
Cuevas requested a hearing pursuant to section 9-275(f). On
December 4, 2014, after a hearing, the DEHE hearing officer
issued a written order finding that Cuevas took improper
exemptions on the 10 properties at which he did not reside
and found him liable under section 9-275. This order resulted
in an aggregate amount due of $91, 984.85, including
taxes, penalties, and interest.
9 On January 6, 2015, Cuevas filed a timely petition for
administrative review of that decision (case No. 15 CH 169).
As amended, the administrative review complaint alleged that
the DEHE's decision was erroneous because, among other
reasons, the new lien and collection system could not apply
to taxes which became delinquent before the July 16, 2013
effective date of Public Act 98-93.
10 On February 10, 2015, Cuevas filed a second lawsuit (case
No. 15 CH 2321) which he framed as a class action to also
include similarly affected taxpayers. As amended, the
complaint asserted numerous claims against section 9-275.
These included, among other things: violation of state and
federal constitutional guarantees of uniform taxation, equal
protection, and due process; vagueness; ambiguity; and
arbitrariness. Like the administrative review lawsuit, it
also challenged the law's retroactive effect, noting that
the tax years in question-2006-2012-all ...