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Todd Lowe; Janet v. Ram

December 16, 2010

TODD LOWE; JANET LOWE; TOM HENDERSON; NANCY HENDERSON; J. ROBERT ANDERSON; CAROLE ANDERSON; DEAN INGEMANSON,TRUSTEE OF THE DEAN INGEMANSON TRUST; KATHY NELSON, TRUSTEE OF THE KATHY NELSON TRUST ARTHUR BERLINER, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
RAM WASHOE COUNTY, A POLITICAL SUBDIVISION OF THE STATE OF NEVADA JOSHWILSON, WASHOE COUNTY ASSESSOR AND BILL BERRUM, WASHOE COUNTY TREASURER DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada Kent J. Dawson, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No.3:08-cv-00217-KJD-

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Graber, Circuit Judge:

FOR PUBLICATION

Argued and Submitted October 8, 2010-San Francisco, California

OPINION

Before: Robert R. Beezer and Susan P. Graber, Circuit Judges, and Cormac J. Carney,*fn1 District Judge. Opinion by Judge Graber

OPINION

Plaintiffs Todd Lowe, Janet Lowe, Tom Henderson, Nancy Henderson, J. Robert Anderson, Carole Anderson, Dean Ingemanson, Kathy Nelson, and Arthur Berliner own residential real property in Incline Village and Crystal Bay, which are communities located on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe in Washoe County, Nevada. As the putative representatives of a class of approximately 9,000 Incline Village and Crystal Bay property owners, the nine plaintiffs filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court against Defendants Washoe County, Washoe County Assessor Josh Wilson, and Washoe County Treasurer Bill Berrum. Plaintiffs allege that the valuation of their Nevada real property used to calculate their ad valorem property taxes for the 2008-09 taxable year violated both the Nevada Constitution and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. They seek declaratory, injunctive, and other appropriate relief. The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Tax Injunction Act (the "Act"), 28 U.S.C. § 1341, because a "plain, speedy and efficient remedy" is available in state court. Reviewing de novo, A-1 Ambulance Serv., Inc. v. California, 202 F.3d 1238, 1242-43 (9th Cir. 2000), we affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. Residents' Past Challenges to the County Assessor's Valuation Methods

While the present case addresses only the 2008-09 tax year, residents of Incline Village and Crystal Bay, including some of the plaintiffs in this case, previously challenged in state court the valuation methods employed by the Washoe County Assessor. Nevada law provides four levels of review to an aggrieved taxpayer. Property owners who disagree with the County Assessor's valuations of their property may file their challenges for a given tax year with the appropriate County Board of Equalization. Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 361.340(11), 361.355-.357. If unsuccessful before the County Board, property owners may appeal to the State Board of Equalization. Id. § 361.360. Dissatisfied property owners may then seek review of the State Board's decision in Nevada state trial court. Id. § 233B.130. If dissatisfied with the trial court decision, taxpayers may appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. Id. § 233B.150.

The County Assessor reappraises taxpayers' real property every five years. Id. § 361.260(6). In 2002, the Washoe County Assessor conducted reappraisals of real property in Incline Village and Crystal Bay; those findings served as the base-year appraisals for the following five years beginning with the 2003-04 tax year.

Incline Village and Crystal Bay residents who disagreed with the increase in their 2003-04 property valuations filed individual petitions with the Washoe County Board of Equalization. The residents claimed that the Assessor used valuation methods that were neither promulgated in regulations by the Nevada Tax Commission nor employed elsewhere in Nevada. Though the residents' claims were unsuccessful before the County Board and the State Board, a Nevada trial court reviewed those decisions and held that the 2003-04 tax assessments were void because they violated the state constitution's guarantee of equal and uniform taxation. In 2006, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. State ex rel. State Bd. of Equalization v. Bakst, 148 P.3d 717 (Nev. 2006) ( en banc). The Nevada Supreme Court held that the Assessor's valuation methods were invalid under Article 10, Section 1, of the Nevada Constitution, which requires that property be taxed according to a uniform and equal rate of assessment. Id. at 721. The court awarded to the 17 individual plaintiff-residents who remained in the case refunds of all taxes attributable to the Assessor's invalid methodologies and ordered that the 2003-04 valuations be rolled back to the 2002-03 level. Id. at 726-27.

Incline Village and Crystal Bay taxpayers later filed individual petitions challenging the Washoe County Assessor's 2004-05 valuations, which relied on the same base-year appraisal as that used for the 2003-04 valuations. The County Board denied the taxpayers' petitions, and the State Board affirmed. Again, a state trial court reversed the State Board, declaring the Assessor's methods unconstitutional and the resulting valuations void. Accordingly, the court directed that refunds be paid to the approximately 37 taxpayers who remained in the case. In July 2008, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed. That court held that the Assessor's methods continued to violate Article 10, Section 1, of the Nevada Constitution because the 2002 reappraisal, previously declared unconstitutional in Bakst, also served as the base-year appraisal for the 2004-05 valuations. State ex rel. State Bd. of Equalization v. Barta, 188 P.3d 1092 (Nev. 2008) (en banc).

Incline Village and Crystal Bay residents later filed individual petitions challenging the Washoe County Assessor's 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08 valuations, all of which relied on the same base-year appraisal as that used for the previous two tax years. Those cases remain pending in state trial court. Approximately 1,200 Incline Village and Crystal Bay taxpayers are currently pursuing individual appeals in the 2005-06 case, and approximately 900 already have received partial relief. Approximately 300 ...


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