Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Tax Commissioner’s Wrong Filing Instructions Creates Ambiguity for Taxpayer to Treat Assessment as Preliminary or Final

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that a company can choose how it will appeal a final personal property tax assessment by the State Tax Commissioner to the State Board of Tax Appeals (BTA) when the commissioner issues a final assessment but mistakenly encloses instructions about how to appeal a preliminary assessment.

The 7-0 decision, authored by Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, determined that the BTA erred when it concluded that Crown Castle GT and Crown Communications Inc made a fatal procedural error by appealing an assessment to the commissioner instead of to the BTA within the required time frame. The Supreme Court reversed the BTA’s decision, remanded the case to the commissioner to address the assessment on the merits, and stated that Crown will still have the right to appeal that decision to the BTA.

Crown owns and operates wireless communication towers located in Ohio. After Crown filed its 2006 Ohio property tax return, the Ohio Department of Taxation notified Crown that it had established a preliminary valuation of Crown’s property that was higher than Crown believed was supported by generally accepted valuation standards in the wireless communications industry. In May 2009, Crown received an official notice of final assessment for the 2006 tax year. The notice instructed Crown that if it wished to appeal the commissioner’s assessment, it must follow appeal procedures set forth in a separate instruction sheet that was enclosed. Although a final assessment by the tax commissioner must be appealed to the BTA within 60 days, Crown’s tax representative subsequently produced a copy of the instructions that she swore were enclosed with Crown’s May 22, 2009 notice incorrectly instructing Crown to file a petition for reassessment for further review by the commissioner, rather than filing a notice of appeal at the BTA, within 60 days.

Pursuant to those instructions, the tax representative prepared and sent a reassessment petition to the tax commissioner’s office. That petition was stamped as received by the commissioner 11 days before the expiration of the appeal period. Neither Crown nor the tax representative was notified before the expiration of the appeal period that the notice of appeal had been directed to the wrong office. In September 2009, after the expiration of the 60-day appeal period, the commissioner’s office issued a final determination stating that it could not process Crown’s appeal of the final assessment for 2006 because only the BTA had jurisdiction to hear appeals of a final assessment.

Crown attempted to file an appeal to the BTA from the commissioner’s final determination, asserting that it had missed the 60-day filing deadline because it relied to its detriment on the erroneous instructions provided by the commissioner. The commissioner moved the BTA to affirm his final assessment of Crown’s property on the grounds that Crown had not timely filed an appeal to the BTA from the final assessment. The BTA granted the commissioner’s motion to affirm his valuation and his determination that there was no jurisdiction for further review because Crown had not timely appealed the final assessment to the BTA.

Crown exercised its right to appeal the BTA’s action to the Supreme Court.

In today’s ruling, Justice Kennedy noted that the tax commissioner “has the obligation to furnish correct appeal instructions to the taxpayer.”

She wrote that the court agreed with Crown’s second proposition of law that by enclosing the wrong appellate instructions, the tax commissioner created ambiguity.

“We hold that by labeling the assessment as final while also including instructions for appealing a preliminary assessment, the tax commissioner conferred on Crown the option to treat the assessment as either preliminary or final. Although Crown has not articulated a detailed argument in support of this proposition, our review of the statutes and case law persuades us that Crown’s actions in following the appeal instructions preserved the jurisdiction of both the tax commissioner and the BTA to consider the merits of Crown’s challenge to the assessment,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

“There is no reason – and certainly nothing in the statutes – that compels us to make the taxpayer suffer adverse consequences because of the commissioner’s own statutory transgressions,” according to Justice Kennedy.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2012-0780. Crown Communication, Inc. v. Testa, Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-3126.
Board of Tax Appeals, No. 2009-A-3187. Decision reversed and cause remanded.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, Kennedy, French, and O’Neill, JJ., concur.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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