Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Company v. County Commission of Webster County, West Virginia East Kentucky Energy Corporation v. County Commission of Webster County, West Virginia

Citation109 S.Ct. 633,488 U.S. 336,102 L.Ed.2d 688
Decision Date18 January 1989
Docket NumberNos. 87-1303,87-1310,s. 87-1303
PartiesALLEGHENY PITTSBURGH COAL COMPANY, Petitioner, v. COUNTY COMMISSION OF WEBSTER COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA EAST KENTUCKY ENERGY CORPORATION, et al., Petitioners, v. COUNTY COMMISSION OF WEBSTER COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

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 Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. 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.

Held:

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 own- ers. 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 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.

178 W.Va. 485, 360 S.E.2d 560, reversed and remanded.

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

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

William Ullrich, Charleston, W. Va., for respondents.

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. . . ." 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

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 figure. In 1982 Allegheny sold the property to East Kentucky Energy Corp. (Kentucky Energy) for a figure of nearly $30 million, and the property thereafter was annually assessed at a valuation just below $15 million. Oneida Coal Company and Shamrock Coal Company participated in similar transactions in Webster County, and the property they purchased or sold was assessed in a similar manner.

Each year, petitioners pursued relief before the County Commission of Webster County sitting as a review board. They argued that the assessment policy of the Webster County assessor systematically resulted in appraisals for their property that were excessive compared to the appraised value of similar parcels that had not been recently conveyed. Each year the county commission affirmed the assessments, and each year petitioners appealed to the state Circuit Court. A group of these appeals from Allegheny and its successor in interest, Kentucky Energy, were consolidated by the West Virginia Circuit Court and finally decided in 1985. App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 87-1303, p. 15a. Another group of appeals from Shamrock and Oneida were consolidated and decided by the West Virginia Circuit Court early the next year. App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 87-1310, p. 49a.2

The judge in both of these cases concluded that the system of real property assessment used by the Webster County assessor systematically and intentionally discriminated against petitioners in violation of the West Virginia Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. He ordered the county commission to reduce the assessments on petitioners' property to the levels recommended by the state tax commissioner in his valuation guidelines published for use by local assessors. Underlying the judge's conclusions were findings that petitioners' tax assessments over the years were dramatically in excess of those for comparable property in the county. He found that "the assessor did not compare the various features of the real estate to which the high assessment was applied with the various features of land assessed at a much lower rate." App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 87-1303, p. 29a; App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 87-1310, p. 59a. "The questioned assessments were not based upon the presence of economically minable or removable coal, oil, gas or harvestable timber in or upon petitioners' real estate, as compared to an absence of the same in or upon [neighboring] properties." Ibid. Nor were they "based upon present use or immediately foreseeable economic development of petitioners' real estate." Ibid. Rather, "[t]he sole basis of the assessment of petitioners' real estate was, according to the assessor, the consideration declared in petitioners' deeds." Ibid.3

This approach systematically produced dramatic differences in valuation between petitioners' recently transferred property and otherwise comparable surrounding land. For the years 1976 through 1982, Allegheny was assessed and taxed at approximately 35 times the rate applied to owners of comparable properties. After purchasing that land, Kentucky Energy was assessed and taxed at approximately 33 times the rate of similar parcels. From 1981 through 1985, the county assessed and taxed the Shamrock-Oneida property at roughly 8 to 20 times that of comparable neighboring coal tracts. These disparities existed notwithstanding the adjustments made to the assessments of land not recently conveyed. In the case of the property held by Allegheny and Kentucky Energy, the county's adjustment policy would have required more than 500 years to equalize the assessments.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia reversed. It found that the record did not support the trial court's ruling that the actions of the assessor and board of review constituted "intentional and systematic" discrimination. It held that "assessments based upon the price paid for the property in arm's length transactions are an appropriate measure of the 'true and actual value' of . . . property." In re 1975 Tax Assessments against Oneida Coal Co., 178 W. Va. 485, 489, 360 S.E.2d 560, 564 (1987)....

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