Desoto Gathering Co. v. Hill

Decision Date30 November 2017
Docket NumberNo. CV–16–990,CV–16–990
Citation531 S.W.3d 396
Parties DESOTO GATHERING COMPANY LLC; DeSoto Drilling, Appellants v. Angela HILL, Faulkner County Assessor; Faulkner County Board of Equalization; Faulkner County Treasurer ; Faulkner County Tax Collector, Appellees
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

531 S.W.3d 396

DESOTO GATHERING COMPANY LLC; DeSoto Drilling, Appellants
v.
Angela HILL, Faulkner County Assessor; Faulkner County Board of Equalization; Faulkner County Treasurer ; Faulkner County Tax Collector, Appellees

No. CV–16–990

Supreme Court of Arkansas.

Opinion Delivered November 30, 2017
Rehearing Denied January 11, 2018


Elias, Books, Brown & Nelson, P.C., by: William K. Elias, for appellants.

David Hogue ; and Taylor & Taylor Law Firm, P.A., Little Rock, by: Andrew M. Taylor and Tasha C. Taylor, for appellees.

KAREN R. BAKER, Associate Justice

Appellants, DeSoto Gathering Company LLC and DeSoto Drilling, Inc. (hereinafter "DeSoto"), appeal from the Faulkner County Circuit Court's order granting the motion to dismiss filed by appellees Angela Hill, in her official capacity as Faulkner County Assessor; the Faulkner County Board of Equalization, Faulkner County, Arkansas; the Faulkner County Treasurer; and the Faulkner County Tax Collector (hereinafter "Hill").1 DeSoto owns gas compressors, gas-gathering systems, and related equipment and operates in Faulkner County, Arkansas. DeSoto filed petitions for appeal from the August 24, 2015 Faulkner County Board of Equalization tax assessment to the Faulkner County Court. On September 22, 2015, Mr. Murray Williams, a nonlawyer and senior tax manager with DeSoto, filed the appeals and signed the petitions that were filed with the Faulkner County Court on behalf of DeSoto. Each petition was on a form that was filled in by Mr. Williams and signed on behalf of DeSoto. On November 2, 2015, a licensed attorney on behalf of DeSoto filed amended petitions of appeal in the Faulkner County Court.2 On November 6, 2015, and November 24, 2015, the Faulkner County Court entered an order and amended order affirming the Faulkner County Board of Equalization's decision.

531 S.W.3d 399

On December 7, 2015, DeSoto filed its appeal of the denial of relief with the Faulkner County Circuit Court. On February 3, 2016, Hill filed a motion to dismiss asserting that the Faulkner County Court had lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the appeal from the Board of Equalization as a result of the appeal petitions being signed by a nonlawyer. Hill also filed a motion in the alternative to stay the proceedings pending this court's resolution of the petition for review in Stephens Prod. Co. v. Bennett, 2015 Ark. App. 617, 2015 WL 6513813. On February 16, 2016, DeSoto filed a response to the motion to dismiss and in the alternative the motion to stay the proceedings. On February 23, 2016, the circuit court entered a stay of all proceedings pending final judgment in Stephens. On July 27, 2016, the circuit court lifted the stay because on July 21, 2016, we dismissed the Stephens appeal, after the parties filed a motion to dismiss the appeal. Following the circuit court's lift of the stay, the parties filed responses to the order lifting the stay. On September 9, 2016, the Faulkner County Circuit Court granted Hill's motion to dismiss and dismissed DeSoto's appeal:

Given the ruling by the Court of Appeals in Stephens Production Company v. Kathy Bennett, et al., CV–2015–935, coupled with the pleadings in the case at bar, this Court finds that this matter should be dismissed.

From that order, DeSoto timely appealed. DeSoto presents the following issue on appeal: Whether the circuit court erred in dismissing DeSoto's appeal when DeSoto's tax manager, a nonlawyer, initiated the appeal on behalf of Desoto.

Our standard of review on issues addressing the unauthorized practice of law is a de novo standard. Nisha, LLC v. TriBuilt Constr. Grp., LLC, 2012 Ark. 130, at 5, 388 S.W.3d 444, 447. Further, we review issues of statutory construction de novo because it is for this court to decide what a statute means. Cooper Realty Inv., Inc. v. Ark. Contractors Licensing Bd., 355 Ark. 156, 134 S.W.3d 1 (2003). "The first rule in considering the meaning and effect of a statute is to construe it just as it reads, giving the words their ordinary and usually accepted meaning in common language." Potter v. City of Tontitown, 371 Ark. 200, 209, 264 S.W.3d 473, 481 (2007). While we are not bound by the circuit court's ruling, we will accept that court's interpretation of a statute unless it is shown that the court erred. Id.

The case before us revolves around ad valorem tax assessments. We have explained the appeal procedure as follows: "The proper appeal process for allegations of improper ad valorem tax assessments is set forth in Ark. Code. Ann. §§ 26–27–317 to –318 (Repl. 1997 & Supp. 2011). An aggrieved property owner's first step is to contest the ad valorem property tax assessment to the county equalization board. See Ark. Code Ann. § 26–27–317. The board's decision, once rendered, can be appealed to the county court. See Ark. Code Ann. § 26–27–318. See, e.g., Crittenden Hosp. Ass'n v. Bd. of Equalization of Crittenden County, 330 Ark. 767, 958 S.W.2d 512 (1997)." May v. Akers–Lang, 2012 Ark. 7, at 12, 386 S.W.3d 378, 384. From county court, a property owner may pursue relief in circuit court.

Here, that process was followed. DeSoto challenged the county court's findings in circuit court, and the circuit court dismissed DeSoto's appeal. The crux of the issue before the court is whether it is error for a circuit court to dismiss a corporation's appeal for lack of jurisdiction when the corporate representative, a nonlawyer, initiated the appeal on behalf of the corporation. We answer in the negative and hold that dismissal under the circumstances in

531 S.W.3d 400

this case was not error for the reasons that follow.

We begin our analysis with amendment 28 to the Arkansas Constitution, which was enacted by the people on November 8, 1938, and provides that "[t]he Supreme Court shall make rules regulating the practice of law and the professional conduct of attorneys at law." We have consistently interpreted this to mean that this court "has the exclusive authority to regulate the practice of law. Preston v. Stoops, 373 Ark. 591, 594, 285 S.W.3d 606, 609 (2008) (‘Oversight and control of the practice of law is under the exclusive authority of the judiciary.’); see also Ark. Const. amend. 28 (‘The Supreme Court shall make rules regulating the practice of law and the professional conduct of attorneys at law.’). Likewise, the unauthorized practice of law falls within this court's constitutional authority to control and govern the practice of law. Preston, 373 Ark. at 594, 285 S.W.3d at 609." Nisha, 2012 Ark. 130, at 5, 388 S.W.3d at 447. Further, in Nisha, we explained our long-standing holdings with regard to the unauthorized practice of law cases:

In [ Arkansas Bar Association v.] Union National Bank, [224 Ark. 48, 273 S.W.2d 408 (1954) ], the Arkansas Bar Association sought to enjoin a bank from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.... Id. at 49, 273 S.W.2d at 409. In our opinion, this court made ... broad conclusions regarding the practice of law in Arkansas:

• Corporations are prohibited from practicing law in this state and a corporate employee, officer, or director who is not a licensed attorney cannot hold himself or herself out as being entitled to practice law. Id. at 51, 273 S.W.2d at 410.

• An individual can practice law for himself or herself, but a corporation can only represent itself in connection with its own business or affairs in the courts of this state through a licensed attorney. Id.

....

• When one appears before a court of record for the purpose of transacting business with the court in connection with any pending litigation or when any person seeks to invoke the processes of the court in any matter pending before it, that person is engaging in the practice of law. Id. at 53, 273 S.W.2d at 411.

• The practice of law is regulated by the judiciary. Id.

Id. at 6, 388 S.W.3d at 447–48.

Also, with regard to corporations, we have explained that "while there is no question that we hold the power to define, regulate, and control the practice of law, section 16–22–211 reflects the consensus of this court as found in prior case law and implied by our court rules. We have observed that ‘[c]orporations shall not practice law.’ Union Nat'l Bank, 224 Ark. at 53, 273 S.W.2d at 411 (1954) (quoting People ex rel. Comm. on Grievances of ColoradoBar Ass'n v. Denver Clearing House Banks, 99 Colo. 50, 59 P.2d 468, 470 (1936) )." Brown v. Kelton, 2011 Ark. 93, at 6–7, 380 S.W.3d 361, 365–66. We have explained that "the prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law exists not only to insure professional competence, but also to protect the public from relying upon the legal counsel of persons who are not bound by the professional standards of conduct that are imposed upon those practicing law in this state. Undem v. State Board of Law Examiners, 266 Ark. 683, 587 S.W.2d 563 (1979)." Clarendon Am. Ins. Co. v. Hickok, 370 Ark. 41, 46, 257 S.W.3d 43, 46–47 (2007).

531 S.W.3d 401

With regard to actions that constitute the unauthorized practice of law, in Union National Bank of Little Rock, supra, this court defined what constitutes the practice of law:

We do hold however that when one appears before a court of record for the purpose of transacting business with the court in connection with any pending litigation or when any person seeks to invoke the processes of the
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