Dekalb Cnty. Bd. of Tax Assessors v. Barrett, A21A1032

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
Writing for the CourtDillard, Presiding Judge.
PartiesDEKALB COUNTY BOARD OF TAX ASSESSORS v. BARRETT.
Docket NumberA21A1032
Decision Date25 October 2021

DEKALB COUNTY BOARD OF TAX ASSESSORS
v.

BARRETT.

No. A21A1032

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

October 25, 2021


DILLARD, P. J., MERCIER and PINSON, JJ.

Dillard, Presiding Judge.

The DeKalb County Board of Tax Assessors (the "Board") appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment to Jimmy Barrett based on its finding that, under OCGA § 48-5-299 (c), he was entitled to a two-year freeze on the taxable values of his various properties for the 2019 and 2020 tax years. Specifically, the Board argues that the trial court erred because, in its view, Barrett was only entitled to such protection for 2018 and 2019. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Board (i.e., the nonmoving party), [1] the record shows that Barrett owns eight tracts of commercial real

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estate in DeKalb County. In June 2017, Barrett received an annual notice of tax assessments from the Board for each of those properties. And while reviewing the notices, Barrett realized that the values given to his properties had substantially increased, so he appealed the 2017 assessments to the DeKalb County Board of Equalization under OCGA § 48-5-311 (e)[2] (the "BOE"). Ultimately, on April 10, 2018, after Barrett presented his appeal, he reached an agreement with the BOE, establishing the value of each property for the 2017 tax year.

Less than two months later, on June 1, 2018, Barrett received notices of assessment from the Board again, which increased all of the relevant property values for the 2018 taxable year. This surprised Barrett, given the agreement he had recently entered into with the BOE, but he initially thought the notices were likely the result of a "logistical mistake." But it turned out not to be an error, so he appealed the new, higher property valuations to the BOE. And following a hearing on the matter, the BOE ruled in Barrett's favor, finding that the property values established for the 2017

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taxable year should remain the same for 2018. The Board then appealed the BOE's decision to the DeKalb County Superior Court.

In June 2019, Barrett moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that the Board unlawfully reassessed and increased the value of his properties for the 2018 taxable year because, under OCGA § 48-5-299 (c), the property values were "frozen" at the time. The Board filed a response, but before the trial court could rule on the motion, Barrett filed a supplemental motion for summary judgment, which was partly based on decisions this Court issued during the pendency of the litigation.[3]

In the Board's response to Barrett's supplemental summary judgment motion, it conceded that-based on recent decisions of this Court-Barrett was entitled to summary judgment as to his initial summary judgment motion. But the Board opposed Barrett's supplemental motion for summary adjudication. Ultimately, after holding a hearing on the matter, the trial court granted both of Barrett's summary-judgment motions. This appeal follows.

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Summary judgment is proper when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."[4] Furthermore, a de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant or denial of summary judgment, and "we view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant."[5] Moreover, at the summary-judgment stage, "[w]e do not resolve disputed facts, reconcile the issues, weigh the evidence, or determine its credibility, as those matters must be submitted to a jury for resolution."[6] With these guiding principles in mind, we will address the Board's specific claim of error.

In its sole argument on appeal, the Board contends the trial court erred in extending OCGA § 48-5-299 (c) beyond its statutory terms by finding that the values of Barrett's properties were frozen for the two taxable years following the BOE's second decision regarding the 2018 taxable year (i.e., 2019 and 2020), rather than the two years following its first decision as to the 2017 taxable year (i.e., 2018 and 2019). We disagree.

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When tasked with interpreting statutory language, we necessarily begin our analysis with "familiar and binding canons of construction."[7] And in considering the meaning of a statute, our charge as an appellate court is to "presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant."[8] Toward that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, [9] consider the text contextually, [10] read the text "in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary

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speaker of the English language would, "[11] and seek to "avoid a construction that makes some language mere surplusage."[12] Simply put, when the language of a statute is "plain and susceptible of only one natural and reasonable construction, courts must construe the statute accordingly."[13]

This brings us to the text of OCGA § 48-5-299 (c), which provides:

When the value of real property is reduced or is unchanged from the value on the initial annual notice of assessment or a corrected annual notice of assessment issued by the board of tax assessors and such valuation has been established as the result of an appeal decision rendered by the board of equalization, hearing officer, arbitrator, or superior court pursuant to Code Section 48-5-311[14] . . . the new
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valuation so established by appeal decision or agreement may not be increased by the board of tax assessors during the next two successive years, unless otherwise agreed in writing by both parties . . . .[15]

Suffice it to say, the plain language of the foregoing statute describes the exact circumstances present here. Specifically, it provides, in relevant part, for a two-year "freeze" on increasing the value of property when it is reduced or unchanged as a result of an appeal decision issued by the BOE. And here, Barrett appealed the Board's property assessments for the 2017 taxable year because he believed they were excessive. The BOE agreed with Barrett and issued a decision that reduced and established new property values for the 2017 taxable year. So, because the relevant property values for the 2017 taxable year were indisputably reduced as a result of an appeal to the BOE, under OCGA 48-5-299 (c), Barrett was entitled to a freeze on the

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value of each of his properties for the next two taxable years, 2018 and 2019. On this much, the parties now agree.

But the Board and Barrett part ways on the legal implications of the Board's decision to increase the values of Barrett's properties for the 2018 taxable year. Barrett contends that those increases were done in contravention of the agreement he reached with the BOE for the 2017 taxable year and in violation of OCGA § 48-5-299 (c). More precisely, notwithstanding the two-year freeze on the property values established by the BOE for 2017 (as a result of Barrett's appeal), the Board-less than two months after those values were set-sent Barrett assessments for the 2018 taxable year that raised those values in violation of OCGA § 48-5-299 (c). And as a result of the Board's unlawful actions, Barrett was forced to pursue a second appeal to the BOE to challenge the Board's new, increased assessments for 2018. The BOE then ruled that-for the 2018 taxable year-the relevant property values would remain unchanged from the values it established for the 2017 taxable year. The Board appealed this second BOE decision, and the trial court found that, under OCGA § 48-5-299 (c), Barrett was entitled to a two-year freeze on the value of his properties following the 2018 taxable year (i.e., 2019 and 2020) because those values remained

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unchanged and were established as a result of an appeal to the BOE. The trial court got it exactly right.

The text of OCGA § 48-5-299 (c) is plain and unambiguous, and the Board has not identified any textual basis for its assertion that the two-year valuation freeze provided for in that statutory provision does not apply when property values are established by a second BOE appeal-which only occurred because the Board willfully violated the two-year freeze applicable to the first BOE decision. And as to the valuations at issue, the relevant property values for the 2018 taxable year remained unchanged from the prior year, and these new property values resulted from yet another appeal to the BOE. End of story.

In essence, the Board wants us to create an exception to the protection OCGA § 48-5-299 (c) affords taxpayers when the value of their property has been established as a result of two separate appeals to the BOE for different tax years. But once again, there is no textual basis in OCGA § 48-5-299 (c) for such an exception and we will not fashion one out of whole cloth. Indeed, as the Board concedes, the two-year freeze applied to the relevant property values set as a result of an appeal to the BOE regarding the 2017 tax year, and we see no basis for treating the values set by the BOE for the 2018 tax year any differently. In sum, under the plain language of OCGA § 48-5-299 (c),

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Barrett is entitled to a two-year freeze on the relevant property values set for the 2018 taxable year because they remained unchanged from the 2017 values and were established as a result of an appeal to the BOE.[16]

Nevertheless, the Board argues the trial court's order must be reversed because it is proscribed by this Court's 2006 decision in Mundell v. Chatham County Board. of Tax Assessors.[17] Indeed, the Board vigorously contends Mundell is "clear and controlling" precedent that the trial court failed to faithfully apply in this case. And to be sure, the facts of Mundell are similar to those present here.

In Mundell, taxpayers challenged the Board's reassessment of their property's value for the tax...

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