Old Colony R. Co. v. Assessors of Boston

Decision Date26 June 1941
Citation309 Mass. 439,35 N.E.2d 246
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court


Proceedings by the Old Colony Railroad Company against the Assessors of Boston for abatement of real estate taxes. From orders of the Appellate Tax Board dismissing appeals, filed by petitioner after four months without action by respondents on the petitions for abatement, petitioner appeals.

Petitions dismissed.Appeal from Supreme Judicial Court, Suffolk County.

Argued before FIELD, C. J., and DONAHUE, DOLAN, and RONAN, JJ.

C. R. Branch and J. B. Reigeluth, both of Boston, for taxpayer.

R. H. Hopkins, Asst. Corp. Counsel, and N. Moger, Asst. Corp. Counsel, both of Boston, for Assessors.

RONAN, Justice.

The appellant, the owner on January 1, 1939, of five parcels of real estate in Boston, upon which a tax for 1939 amounting to more than $1,000 on each parcel was assessed by the appellees, seasonably filed applications for abatement on each parcel. The appellees did not, within four months, take any action upon the applications and thereupon the appellant duly filed five appeals, each for a separate parcel, with the Appellate Tax Board. The appeals were dismissed for want of jurisdiction because the appellant had failed to pay the whole or one half of the tax on the parcel included in each appeal, as required by G.L. (Ter.Ed.) c. 59, § 64, 65 and 65B, as amended by St.1938, c. 478, §§ 1-3. The taxpayer appealed to this court.

St.1938, c. 478, contains four sections, but we are concerned with only three. The first section, which amended G.L.(Ter.Ed.) c. 59, § 64, authorized a person, who was aggrieved by the refusal of the assessors to abate a tax on personal property which has been paid, or a tax of not more than $1,000 on a parcel of real estate, or a tax of more than $1,000 on a parcel of real estate, which has been paid or on account of which there has been paid a sum not less than the amount that would be assessable upon a valuation equal to the average of the valuations of said parcel, as reduced by reason of abatement, if any, for the three preceding years, to appeal to the county commissioners. The second section of said c. 478 amended G.L. (Ter.Ed.) c. 59, § 65, and authorized such a taxpayer to appeal to the Appellate Tax Board subject to the same conditions governing an appeal to the county commissioners. Section 65B was inserted in G.L.(Ter.Ed.) c. 59, by the third section of said c. 478. By virtue of this section a taxpayer aggrieved by the refusal of the assessors to abate his tax amounting to more than $1,000 on a parcel of real estate, and who has paid one half of the tax or one half of the amount for which a tax would be assessable on said parcel if based upon a valuation equal to the average valuation for the three preceding years, as reduced by reason of abatement, if any, and who claims to be unable presently to pay the balance of the tax, may petition the Appellate Tax Board for leave to file an appeal. If the allegations of the petition are found to be true, permission may be granted to file an appeal from the refusal of the assessors, upon conditions which may include the payment of the balance of the tax in whole or by installments as a prerequisite to any hearing upon the merits of the appeal. The petition for appeal may be dismissed upon the failure to comply with any of the conditions imposed in granting leave to file said appeal.

The taxpayer contends that a statute that denies a hearing upon an abatement of a tax assessed upon an overvaluation of a parcel of real estate, and amounting to more than $1,000, unless all or one half of the tax is paid, is violative of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and of certain provisions of the Constitution of the Commonwealth.

The Fourteenth Amendment contains no specific limitations upon the power inherent in a State to raise revenue necessary for its maintenance and support, and the Legislature has broad discretion in adjusting its tax legislation to the needs of its people in order to provide for the equitable distribution of the public burden. The tax system thus devised is not to be struck down unless it is shown to be plainly arbitrary and oppressively discriminatory against some particular class of taxpayers. Bell's Gap Railroad v. Pennsylvania, 134 U.S. 232, 10 S.Ct. 533, 33 L.Ed. 892;New York Rapid Transit Corp. v. New York, 303 U.S. 573, 58 S.Ct. 721, 82 L.Ed. 1024;Madden v. Kentucky, 309 U.S. 83, 60 S.Ct. 406, 84 L.Ed. 590, 125 A.L.R. 1383;Whitney v. State Tax Commission of New York, 309 U.S. 530, 60 S.Ct. 635, 84 L.Ed. 909.

Our own taxing statutes contain reasonable regulations governing the abatement of taxes that are claimed to be excessive. Applications for abatements must be in writing, on a form approved by the commissioner of corporations and taxation, and be filed within a specified time. Lists of taxable property, verified by oath, may be required of taxpayers and the measure of relief may be made dependent upon the filing of such a list. Boston Rubber Shoe Co. v. Malden, 216 Mass. 508, 104 N.E. 478;Parsons v. Lenox, 228 Mass. 231, 117 N.E. 197;Central National Bank v. Lynn, 259 Mass. 1, 156 N.E. 42;Assessors of Boston v. Suffolk Law School, 295 Mass. 489, 4 N.E.2d 342;Old Colony Railroad v. Assessors of Quincy, 305 Mass. 509, 26 N.E.2d 313;Choate v. Assessors of Boston, 304 Mass. 298, 23 N.E.2d 882;Glidden v. Harrington, 189 U.S. 255, 23 S.Ct. 574, 47 L.Ed. 798;Burrill v. Locomobile Co., 258 U.S. 34, 42 S Ct. 256, 66 L.Ed. 450. Many of these regulations may be generally considered as matters of procedure, but the course prescribed must be followed in order to secure an abatement, and the failure to comply with these various procedural steps may be sufficient to bar relief. Harrington v. Glidden, 179 Mass. 486, 61 N.E. 54,94 Am.St.Rep. 613;Amherst College v. Assessors of Amherst, 193 Mass. 168, 79 N.E. 248;Sears v. Nahant, 221 Mass. 437, 109 N.E. 370;Sullivan v. Ashfield, 227 Mass. 24, 116 N.E. 565;Central National Bank v. Lynn, 259 Mass. 1, 156 N.E. 42;Commonwealth Investment Co. v. Brookline, 268 Mass. 32, 167 N.E. 227.

The appellant contends that the assessors are not required to grant a hearing upon an application for an abatement, that an appeal cannot be filed with either the county commissioner or the Appellate Tax Board unless it paid the tax, or at least one half of it, and that it is financially unable to make such payment. It therefore contends that it is precluded from a hearing or obtaining a decision on the question whether its property has been overvalued, and is deprived of its property without due process of law.

The failure of a board of assessors to act upon an application within four months after its filing may be considered as a refusal to abate the tax, and the proceedings then become ripe for an appeal to either the county commissioners or the Appellate Tax Board. G.L.(Ter.Ed.) c. 59, §§ 64, 65 as amended. While there is nothing contained in the statutes that in ay way intimates that the assessors are under no obligation to grant a hearing, Harrington v. Glidden, 179 Mass. 486, 495, 61 N.E. 54,94 Am.St.Rep. 613;Taber Mill v. Assessors of New Bedford, 261 Mass. 432, 158 N.E. 667;Eastern Racing Association, Inc. v. Assessors of Revere, 300 Mass. 578, 581, 16 N.E.2d 64, yet we assume, but without in any way deciding, that the appellant was unable to secure a hearing before the board of assessors, as the conclusion which we reach in this case is (unaffected by this assumption.

A taxpayer who contends that his property has been overvalued is entitled to a fair opportunity to be fully heard, upon the value of the property subject to the tax, by the board that made the assessment or by some other administrative agency having power to fix the value, before the amount of the tax can be irrevocably fixed. Commissioner of Corporations & Taxation v. J. G. McCrory Co., 280 Mass. 273, 277, 182 N.E. 481;Napier v. Springfield, 304 Mass. 174, 23 N.E.2d 157;Hagar v. Reclamation District No. 108, 111 U.S. 701, 4 S.Ct. 663, 28 L.Ed. 569;Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad v. Backus, 154 U.S. 421, 14 S.Ct. 1114, 38 L.Ed. 1031;McGregor v. Hogan, 263 U.S. 234, 44 S.Ct. 50, 68 L.Ed. 282;American Surety Co. v. Bladwin, 287 U.S. 156, 168, 53 S.Ct. 98, 77 L.Ed. 231, 86 A.L.R. 298;Nickey v. Mississippi, 292 U.S. 393, 396, 54 S.Ct. 743, 78 L.Ed. 1323. Such an administrative system has long been established by our statutes, and it is the exclusive remedy which must be invoked by all taxpayers seeking an abatement of taxes. Sears v. Assessors of Nahant, 208 Mass. 208, 94 N.E. 467;Sullivan v. Ashfield, 227 Mass. 24, 116 N.E. 565;Wynn v. Assessors of Boston, 281 Mass. 245, 183 N.E. 528;Amory v. Assessors of Boston, 306 Mass. 354, 28 N.E.2d 436.

The issue presented is whether the Commonwealth can condition recourse to this remedy upon the payment of the tax. The answer is to be found in observing, in a practical way, the relation between the necessity of the State for revenue and the obligation of the citizen to bear his share of the expense of his government. The prompt payment of taxes is necessary for the orderly functioning of government, Salisbury Beach Associates v. Assessors of Salisbury, 225 Mass. 399, 114 N.E. 675;Napier v. Springfield, 304 Mass. 174, 23 N.E.2d 157, and a citizen, contending his assessment is excessive, has no right superior to the demand for payment to withhold the entire tax until he can secure an adjudication of the amount due. Cheatham v. United States, 92 U.S. 85, 89, 23 L.Ed. 561;Tennessee v. Sneed, 96 U.S. 69, 75, 24 L.Ed. 610;Springer v. United States 102 U.S. 586, 594, 26 L.Ed. 253;Phillips v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 283 U.S. 589, 51 S.Ct. 608, 75 L.Ed. 1289.

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