Taxpayers Challenging Princeton Univ. Exemption Get a Hall Pass
As some may recall, a group of property owners in Princeton filed complaints in the Tax Court challenging the property tax exemption for properties owned by Princeton University. Faced with a $25,450 bill, plaintiffs in Kenneth Fields, et al v. Trustees of Princeton University were on the verge of having their complaints administratively dismissed for unpaid filing fees. Deficiency Notices were issued by the Tax Court Management Office to plaintiffs indicating that plaintiffs were deficient in the collective amount of $25,450 in court fees, and if payment was not made within ten days of the notice, plaintiffs’ complaints were to be dismissed. The Tax Court stayed the time to comply with the Deficiency Notices so the parties may submit submissions and argue on the issue of fee waiver or modification of the fees. Princeton University obviously argued for the enforcement of the fees while plaintiffs argued against it. Princeton Municipality however took no position on the issue.
Tax Court filing fees can accumulate and become expensive for litigants. Generally, the filing fee is $250 unless it is a small claims matter which carries a fee of $50. Complaints of multiple properties under common ownership require an initial $250 plus $50 for each additional separately assessed parcel. In the instant matter, the tax exempt properties challenged by taxpayers totaled 169 parcels for tax year 2014, and 170 for tax years 2015, and 2016. The plaintiffs only paid $750 for all three years which resulted in a $25,450 deficiency (calculated by paying $250 per complaint).
The Court Rules permit waiver of fees for indigent persons. However, despite their inability to pay the filing fee, plaintiffs in this case have made no representation to the court that they are in fact indigent. Nonetheless, Judge Bianco of the Tax Court recognized that $25,450 in filing fees “is a lot to pay for anybody, and would prohibit access to the courts for most.”
Citing to the New Jersey Courts Vision Statement, Judge Bianco emphasized the importance of “equal access to a fair and effective system of justice for all without excess cost.” Despite taxpayers in the present case overcoming multiple motions to dismiss, the judge stated that “the potential now for these suits to abruptly end, not based upon law or the determination of the facts, but rather based upon undue hardship caused by excessive court fees, would not only be a travesty of justice, but also would be wholly inconsistent with the Vision Statement of New Jersey’s judicial system, and New Jersey’s limited case law on the issue.”
The Tax Court ultimately concluded that the compounding fee provision is not applicable in exemption challenges under R. 8:12(c) and justice requires the waiver of court fees in this particular case. As a result, the Tax Court vacated the $25,450 court fees and deemed plaintiffs have satisfied the filing fee.
After numerous motions to dismiss the taxpayers’ complaints, the Tax Court has again issued another blow to Princeton Municipality.
A copy of the opinion can be read here.