BRIGGS TAX SERVICE v. DETROIT PUB. SCHOOLS

Decision Date30 March 2010
Docket Number138182.,Docket No. 138168,138179
Citation780 N.W.2d 753
PartiesBRIGGS TAX SERVICE, L.L.C., Petitioner-Appellee, v. DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS and Detroit Board of Education, Respondents-Appellants, and City of Detroit and Wayne County Treasurer, Respondents. Briggs Tax Service, L.L.C., Petitioner-Appellee, v. Detroit Public Schools, Detroit Board of Education, and Wayne County Treasurer, Respondents, and City of Detroit, Respondent-Appellant. Briggs Tax Service, L.L.C., Petitioner-Appellee, v. Detroit Public Schools, Detroit Board of Education, and City of Detroit, Respondents, and Wayne County Treasurer, Respondent-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

The Mazzara Law Firm, PLLC (by Jack J. Mazzara), Grosse Pointe Woods, and Giamarco, Mullins & Horton, PC (by Larry W. Bennett), Troy, for Briggs Tax Service, L.L.C.

Dickinson Wright PLLC (by Robert F. Rhoades and Adam D. Grant), Thrun Law Firm, P.C. (by David Olmstead and Roy H. Henley), and Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone PLC (by Jerome R. Watson and Larry J. Saylor), Detroit, for the Detroit Public Schools and the Detroit Board of Education.

Joanne D. Stafford, Detroit, for the city of Detroit.

William M. Wolfson, Interim Corporation Counsel, and Richard G. Stanley, Assistant Corporation Counsel, for the Wayne County Treasurer.

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP (by John D. Pirich, Lansing, Michael B. Shapiro, and Jason Conti, Detroit), for Amicus Curiae the Building Office Managers Association of Metropolitan Detroit.

Opinion

MARILYN J. KELLY, C.J.

The dispute in this case concerns whether respondent's wrongful collection of property taxes from petitioner constitutes a mutual mistake of fact within the meaning of MCL 211.53a. If the assessing officer and petitioner made a mutual mistake of fact, the three-year limitations period of MCL 211.53a applies, and petitioner may pursue its refund claim. If not, petitioner is not entitled to a refund because it did not file its petition within the general limitations period. We conclude that the assessing officer and petitioner did not make a mutual mistake of fact and that MCL 211.53a does not apply to petitioner's claim. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the decision of the Tax Tribunal.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In September 1993, voters in the Detroit Public School district approved a 32.25-mill school operating property tax. The millage authorized respondent Detroit Public Schools (DPS) to levy property taxes until the millage expired on June 30, 2002. In March 1994, Michigan voters approved Proposal A, a school finance reform proposal. Under Proposal A, local school districts are precluded from levying more than 18 mills in property taxes. However, Proposal A provided that unexpired millages authorized before January 1, 1994, are valid, even if greater than 18 mills.

Despite the fact that voter approval for the DPS operating millage expired on June 30, 2002, DPS continued to levy an unauthorized 18-mill tax for tax years 2002, 2003, and 2004. Dr. Kenneth Burnley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Detroit Public School District, approved annual resolutions certifying the tax levies. DPS apparently believed that, when voters approved Proposal A, local school district electors no longer needed to approve a tax rate of 18 mills. In August 2005, DPS published a notice acknowledging that the taxes levied for 2002, 2003, and 2004 were levied without authorization and that the revenue from those taxes might have to be refunded.

Petitioner, Briggs Tax Service, L.L.C., filed a claim with the Tax Tribunal against respondents DPS, the Detroit Board of Education, the city of Detroit, and the Wayne County Treasurer. It sought a refund of the unauthorized taxes levied and collected by DPS.1 Petitioner also sought to enjoin future collections without proper authority as well as an award for the damage that the unlawful property tax levies allegedly caused. Additionally, petitioner asserted that respondents violated the Michigan Constitution by unlawfully taking its property and by depriving it and other property owners of due process of law.2

The Tax Tribunal dismissed petitioner's refund claim on jurisdictional grounds because it had not been filed within 30 days of the issuance of the applicable tax bills as required by MCL 205.735(2).3 On reconsideration, the Tax Tribunal gave petitioner the opportunity to file an amended petition.

In its amended petition, petitioner alleged that a mutual mistake of fact under MCL 211.53a had occurred. Applying MCL 211.53a, petitioner claimed that it had three years in which to file suit to recover the unauthorized taxes. DPS and the county treasurer moved for summary disposition, alleging that the Tax Tribunal lacked jurisdiction because the three-year period provided by MCL 211.53a did not apply. The Tax Tribunal agreed, ruling that

MCL 211.53a governs a "... mutual mistake of fact made by the assessing officer and the taxpayer...." (Emphasis added.) Pursuant to MCL 211.10d(1), the assessing officer is an assessor who has been certified by the state assessor's board and who makes an annual assessment of property. An assessor is not tasked with determining, approving, certifying, or verifying a millage, nor is that person qualified to do so. Moreover, an assessor is not involved in the collection of the tax. Assessors are employed by assessing jurisdictions. While assessing jurisdictions also levy property taxes, not all jurisdictions that levy property taxes are assessing jurisdictions. In the instant case, the assessor was employed by the City of Detroit, not DPS. For these reasons, the Tribunal finds that the assessing officer made no mistake as to the expiration date of DPS' millage.4

Accordingly, the Tax Tribunal dismissed petitioner's refund claim because it was not filed within 30 days as required by MCL 205.735(2).

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the Tax Tribunal, holding that petitioner was entitled to pursue a claim for a refund under MCL 211.53a.5 It reasoned that the mistake regarding the validity of imposing the tax was a mutual mistake of fact between the taxpayer and the assessor, rejecting the Tax Tribunal's conclusion to the contrary:

This litigation arises not from a dispute over a question of law, but from a mutual mistake of fact—both parties erroneously believed that petitioner was required to pay the disputed taxes in 2002, 2003, and 2004, although petitioner had no such obligation.... The question whether the procedures necessary to renew the property tax assessments in order to levy taxes on nonhomestead-property owners for tax years 2002, 2003, and 2004 were followed is one of fact—either the school electors authorized the taxes for those years or they didn't. Similarly, whether petitioner, a nonhomestead-property owner, was required to pay these taxes (and, hence, whether petitioner is entitled to a refund of these taxes) is a factual question. Therefore, the belief apparently held by both petitioner and respondents—that respondents were authorized to issue, and petitioner was obligated to pay, the disputed taxes in 2002, 2003, and 2004—constitutes a mutual mistake of fact.6

We granted respondents' applications for leave to appeal to determine whether a mutual mistake of fact occurred such that the three-year limitations period of MCL 211.53a applies.7

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review of Tax Tribunal cases is multifaceted.8 If fraud is not claimed, this Court reviews the Tax Tribunal's decision for misapplication of the law or adoption of a wrong principle.9 We deem the Tax Tribunal's factual findings conclusive if they are supported by "competent, material, and substantial evidence on the whole record."10 But when statutory interpretation is involved, this Court reviews the Tax Tribunal's decision de novo.11 We also review de novo the grant or denial of a motion for summary disposition.12

ANALYSIS

This case involves an issue of statutory interpretation. The primary goal of statutory interpretation is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature.13 The first step is to review the language of the statute.14 If the statutory language is unambiguous, the Legislature is presumed to have intended the meaning expressed in the statute.15

Legal Background

When this case arose, MCL 205.735(2) set forth the requirements for invoking the Tax Tribunal's jurisdiction. Generally, former MCL 205.735(2) required filing a petition with the Tax Tribunal within 30 days of a final decision. However, when another statute provides a different limitations period for filing a petition with the Tax Tribunal, that statute controls and MCL 205.735 does not apply.16 Germane to this appeal is MCL 211.53a, which provides:

Any taxpayer who is assessed and pays taxes in excess of the correct and lawful amount due because of a clerical error or mutual mistake of fact made by the assessing officer and the taxpayer may recover the excess so paid, without interest, if suit is commenced within 3 years from the date of payment, notwithstanding that the payment was not made under protest. Emphasis added.

Thus, the Legislature has provided taxpayers with two situations in which a three-year limitations period applies: (1) cases in which there is a "clerical error" and (2) cases in which the assessing officer and the taxpayer made a mutual mistake of fact. In this case, no party contends that there was a clerical error. We thus focus our discussion on the meaning and application of the phrase "mutual mistake of fact made by the assessing officer and the taxpayer." Instructive in this regard is MCL 8.3a, which provides:

All words and phrases shall be construed and understood according to the common and approved usage of the language; but technical words and phrases, and such as may have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall
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