488 U.S. 336 (1989), 87-1303, Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County Commission

Docket Nº:No. 87-1303
Citation:488 U.S. 336, 109 S.Ct. 633, 102 L.Ed.2d 688, 57 U.S.L.W. 4095
Party Name:Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County Commission
Case Date:January 18, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 336

488 U.S. 336 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 633, 102 L.Ed.2d 688, 57 U.S.L.W. 4095

Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co.


County Commission

No. 87-1303

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 18, 1989

of Webster County, West Virginia

Argued December 7, 1988




The West Virginia Constitution in relevant part establishes a general principle of uniform taxation so that all property, both real and personal, shall be taxed in proportion to its value. The Webster County tax assessor, from 1975 to 1986, valued petitioners' real property on the basis of its recent purchase price. Other properties not recently transferred were assessed based on their previous assessments with minor modifications. This system resulted in gross disparities in the assessed value of generally comparable property. Each year, respondent county commission affirmed the assessments, and petitioners appealed to the State Circuit Court. Eventually, a number of these appeals were consolidated and decided. The State Circuit Court held that the county's assessment system systematically and intentionally discriminated against petitioners in violation of the State Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Federal Constitution. It ordered respondent to reduce petitioners' assessments to the levels recommended by the state tax commissioner in his guidelines for local assessors. The State Supreme Court of Appeals reversed. It held that the record did not support a finding of intentional and systematic discrimination because petitioners' property was not assessed at more than true value, as appropriately measured by the recent arm's-length purchase price of the property. In its view, any comparative undervaluation of other property could only be remedied by an action by petitioners to raise those other assessments.


1. The assessments on petitioners' property violated the Equal Protection Clause. There is no constitutional defect in a scheme that bases an assessment on the recent arm's-length purchase price of the property, and uses a general adjustment as a transitional substitute for an individual reappraisal of other parcels. But the Clause requires that such general adjustments be accurate enough to obtain, over a short period of time, rough equality in tax treatment of similarly situated property owners.

Page 337

This action is not one involving permissible transitional inequality, since petitioners' property has been assessed at roughly 8 to 35 times more than comparable neighboring property, and these discrepancies have continued for more than 10 years with little change. The county's adjustments to assessments that are carried over are too small to seasonably dissipate the disparity. Pp. 342-344.

2. The Equal Protection Clause permits a State to divide different kinds of property into classes and to assign to each a different tax burden so long as those divisions and burdens are neither arbitrary nor capricious. West Virginia has not drawn such a distinction here, as its Constitution and laws provide that all property of the kind held by petitioners shall be taxed uniformly according to its estimated market value. There is no suggestion that the State has in practice adopted a different system that authorizes individual counties to independently fashion their own substantive assessment policies. The Webster County assessor has, apparently on her own initiative, applied state tax law in a manner resulting in significant and persistent disparity in assessed value between [109 S.Ct. 635] petitioners' and similarly situated property. The intentional systematic undervaluation of such other property unfairly deprives petitioners of their rights under the Clause. Pp. 344-346.

3. The State might on its own initiative remove the discrimination against petitioners by raising the assessments of systematically and intentionally undervalued property in the same class. A taxpayer in petitioners' position, however, forced to litigate for redress, may not be remitted by the State to the remedy of seeking to have the assessments of the undervalued property raised. P. 346.

___ W.Va. ___, 360 S.E.2d 560, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 338

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The West Virginia Constitution guarantees to its citizens that, with certain exceptions,

taxation shall be equal and uniform throughout the State, and all property, both real and personal, shall be taxed in proportion to its value. . . .

W.Va. Const., Art. X, § 1. The Webster County tax assessor valued petitioners' real property on the basis of its recent purchase price, but made only minor modifications in the assessments of land which had not been recently sold. This practice resulted in gross disparities in the assessed value of generally comparable property, and we hold that it denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Between 1975 and 1986, the tax assessor for Webster County, West Virginia, fixed yearly assessments for property within the county at 50% of appraised value. She fixed the appraised value at the declared consideration at which the property last sold. Some adjustments were made in the assessments of properties that had not been recently sold, although they amounted to, at most, 10% increases in 1976, 1981, and 1983 respectively.1

Page 339

In 1974, for example, Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Company (Allegheny) purchased fee, surface, and mineral interests in certain properties for a stated price somewhat in excess of $24 million, and during the tax years 1976 through 1983 its property was assessed annually at half of this...

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