Tax Refund Violating of Equal Protection Clause

The current status of equal protection analysis as applied to taxation can be best demonstrated by contrasting two leading decisions of the United States Supreme Court in that area. In Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Webster County, 488 U.S. 336, 338, 102 L. Ed. 2d 688, 109 S. Ct. 633 (1989), the Court invalidated a county's property tax valuation system as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In Allegheny, the West Virginia constitution required that property taxes be "equal and uniform" and all property be taxed in proportion to its value. See id. at 338. The Webster County Assessor followed a practice of valuing real property at 50% of the price that had been paid for it when it was most recently sold. See id. The taxpayer complained that through this practice the valuation of its property had been set at a figure many times larger than the valuation of neighboring properties virtually identical to the taxpayer's. See id. at 339. The assessor did not dispute that her system produced this result, but nevertheless refused to deviate from it. See id. In analyzing the taxpayer's equal protection claim, the Court acknowledged that a state could classify property and impose differing tax burdens on the classifications as long as the classifications and burdens arguably related to a legitimate interest of the state. See id. at 344. The Court also observed that equal protection principles did not require the state to immediately adjust property valuations according to market developments or recent comparable sales. See id. at 343. According to the Court, the Equal Protection Clause nevertheless required the state to take steps toward "the seasonable attainment of a rough equality in tax treatment of similarly situated property owners." Id. In view of the "equal and uniform" and tax-proportionality-to-value requirements of the state constitution, the Court indicated the assessor could not argue that her practice resulted from a legislative policy against allowing property valuations to increase due to inflation alone. See id. at 344. The Court termed the assessor's practice an "aberrational enforcement policy" that taxed similar properties differently only because the assessor refused to take any steps to modify the inequality. Id. at n. 4. As applied, the County's assessment system violated equal protection because it failed the rational basis test. See id. at 343. The Court again measured a state's property taxation system against the rational basis test under the Equal Protection Clause in Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1, 120 L. Ed. 2d 1, 112 S. Ct. 2326 (1992). A California constitutional provision that resulted from a 1978 initiative called "Proposition 13" capped real property taxes at one percent of the full cash value determined for the property in the 1975-76 tax year. See id. at 5. Valuation increases due to inflation could not exceed two percent per year. See id. Unlimited revaluation could occur only when property changed ownership or was newly constructed after 1975. See id. In Nordlinger, the Court stated that these classifications would not be violative of equal protection "so long as there is a plausible policy reason for the classification" and "the legislative facts on which the classification is apparently based rationally may have been considered to be true by the governmental decisionmaker." Id. at 10-11. The Court sustained the classification in question because the Court was able to discern that the classification would encourage stable neighborhoods by obviating the need for property owners to sell their property to pay tax levies increased by inflation. See id. at 12. Additionally, the Court held the state could permissibly protect the reliance interests of persons who had purchased property with a low assessment and had not anticipated the need to pay higher taxes due to inflation. See id. at 12-13. Because the classification was at least arguably related to legitimate state interests, the Court made no inquiry into the likelihood that the classification would actually promote those interests. See id. The Court distinguished Allegheny as "the rare case where the facts precluded any plausible inference that the reason for unequal assessment practice was to achieve the benefits" of any articulated legitimate state interest. Id. at 16. The complete arbitrariness of the governmental practice challenged in Allegheny failed to clear even the low hurdle erected by the rational basis test. 488 U.S. at 343. The Court had no difficulty, however, in holding that the rational connection between the statutory classifications at issue in Nordlinger and legitimate state interests that could be imagined or inferred under the circumstances was not so attenuated that the classification had to be invalidated as arbitrary and capricious. 505 U.S. at 18. From Nordlinger, 505 U.S. 1, 120 L. Ed. 2d 1, 112 S. Ct. 2326, and Allegheny, 488 U.S. 336, 102 L. Ed. 2d 688, 109 S. Ct. 633, we summarize the equal protection principles applicable to matters of taxation in this way: A governmental classification for the purpose of taxation, whether created by statute alone or by the actions of government officials in applying a statute, complies with the Equal Protection Clause unless the classification is arbitrary and capricious, or in other words, unless: (1) no plausible policy reason exists for the classification (2) the court can neither conceive nor infer from the circumstances the existence of legislative facts underpinning the classification that the governmental decisionmaker could rationally have considered to be true. We apply this "rational basis" test unless the taxpayer can demonstrate that the classification warrants some form of heightened review. Savage v. Munn, 317 Ore. 283, 856 P.2d 298, 305 (Or. 1993). In a recent case, we recently re-stated the rational basis test as follows: We normally subject economic legislation to the rational basis test. Arizona Downs v. Arizona Horsemen's Found., 130 Ariz. 550, 555, 637 P.2d 1053, 1058 (1981). To satisfy this test, a statutory classification "must be rationally and reasonably related to furthering" a legitimate state interest. Big D Constr. Corp. v. Court of Appeals, 163 Ariz. 560, 566, 789 P.2d 1061, 1067 (1990). We will uphold a classification if we can imagine any set of facts rationally justifying it. State v. Kelly, 111 Ariz. 181, 184, 526 P.2d 720, 723 (1974), cert. denied sub nom. Kelly v. Arizona, 420 U.S. 935, 95 S. Ct. 1143, 43 L. Ed. 2d 411 (1975). General Motors Corp. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 189 Ariz. 86, 92-93, 938 P.2d 481, 487-88 (App. 1996), disapproved on other grounds by Valencia Energy Co. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 191 Ariz. 565, 570, 959 P.2d 1256, 1261 (1998). This articulation is fully congruent with Nordlinger and Allegheny. Additionally, when their facts are compared, Nordlinger and Allegheny strikingly demonstrate the high degree of deference to governmental line-drawing that the modern rational basis test embodies. Against the foregoing backdrop, some of the Arizona case law addressing "discrimination" in tax cases may appear to deviate from correct constitutional doctrine. We refer to a long line of Arizona decisions that have resolved claims of discrimination in violation of both the Equal Protection and Uniformity Clauses in whole or in part by focusing on whether the complaining taxpayer could demonstrate "deliberate" or "intentional" and "systematic" overvaluation of the taxpayer's property in comparison to similar properties. See Security Properties v. Arizona Dep't of Property Valuation, 112 Ariz. 54, 57, 537 P.2d 924, 927 (1975); McCluskey v. Sparks, 80 Ariz. 15, 19, 291 P.2d 791, 793 (1955); Hibbs, 166 Ariz. at 218, 801 P.2d at 453; Maricopa County v. North Central Dev. Co., 115 Ariz. 540, 543, 566 P.2d 688, 691 (App. 1977); Hillock v. Bade, 22 Ariz. App. 46, 51, 523 P.2d 97, 102 (1974), aff'd 111 Ariz. 585, 535 P.2d 1302 (1975); see also General Motors Corp., 189 Ariz. at 93, 938 P.2d at (income taxation); Brink Electric Const. Co. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 184 Ariz. 354, 362, 909 P.2d 421, 429 (App. 1995) (contracting excise); Sonitrol of Maricopa County v. City of Phoenix, 181 Ariz. 413, 422, 891 P.2d 880, 889 (App. 1994) (municipal excise on telecommunications business); Tucson Mechanical Contracting, Inc. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 175 Ariz. 176, 181, 854 P.2d 1162, 1167 (App. 1992) (contracting excise). In fact these decisions correctly focus on an essential feature of equal protection and uniformity principles -- the existence of a true governmental "classification" to which the relevant analysis may be applied. Basic constitutional jurisprudence holds that governments may classify both people and property by statute ("on its face") or by differential administrative application of a neutral statute ("application" or "purpose and effect"). See generally 3 Ronald D. Rotunda & John E. Nowak, Treatise on Constitutional Law: Substance and Procedure 18.4 at 42 (2d ed. 1992). By insisting that the challenged action result from "systematic and intentional discrimination" and not merely from random mishap, "oversight," "negligence," or bungling, see, e.g., Hibbs, 166 Ariz. at 218, 801 P.2d at 453; Gosnell Dev. Corp. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 154 Ariz. 539, 541, 744 P.2d 451, 453 (App. 1987), these cases do no more than require that the plaintiff demonstrate the existence of a genuine governmental "classification." Once this connection becomes clear, applying equal protection analysis in this case is relatively straightforward. the challenged governmental action here is the County's decision to accede to the refund demand asserted by the Evans-Withycombe taxpayers, while simultaneously refusing to accede to the legally identical refund demand asserted by the taxpayer-appellees in the instant case. Though the County took this action only once, it did so for an articulable policy reason. It is undisputed that the two groups of taxpayers and their properties were identically situated in all relevant respects, and although they were treated identically prior to the County's refusal to settle with both groups, the County's action treated the two groups and their properties differently. Taxpayer-appellees thus rely on the argument that the County conceived and applied distinct "classifications" to the two groups of taxpayers and their two groups of properties. However, these claimed classifications survive the taxpayers' equal protection challenge if we can infer a set of facts underpinning the classifications that the County might rationally have believed and that was rationally related to furthering a plausible governmental interest. Here, the County might have rationally believed it was in the County's taxpayers' best interests to dispose of litigation in which a relatively small amount was at stake in favor of focusing its resources on defending an action brought by identically situated taxpayers raising legally identical issues in which a far larger sum was at stake. We need not and do not consider whether these were the County officials' actual beliefs or whether the action actually promoted the best interests of the County's taxpayers. The claimed classifications and actions of the County had a rational basis and did not violate equal protection principles. Uniformity Clause: The substantive requirements of Arizona's Uniformity Clause differ significantly from those of the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause does not require uniformity of property taxation; rather, it requires only that any discrimination be rationally based. See Savage, 856 P.2d at 305. In contrast, the Uniformity Clause requires that "all taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of property within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected for public purposes only." Ariz. Const. art. 9, 1. Under the Uniformity Clause, the legislative classification of property for tax purposes must not be discriminatory. Classifications for tax purposes must be based on the nature of the property or on its use, utility, or productivity. See Cutter Aviation, Inc. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 191 Ariz. 485, 495, 958 P.2d 1, 11 (App. 1997); In re America West Airlines, Inc., 179 Ariz. 528, 535, 880 P.2d 1074, 1081 (1994). Additionally, once the legislature has determined the classifications of property for tax purposes, the assessment of property within those classifications must not be discriminatory. Nevertheless, assessments of property within the same class need not be exactly equal. Unequal assessments resulting from mere errors in judgment do not violate the Uniformity Clause. See Westin Tucson Hotel Co. v. Arizona Dep't of Revenue, 188 Ariz. 360, 366, 936 P.2d 183, 189 (App. 1997); North Central, 115 Ariz. at 543, 566 P.2d at 691. To violate the Uniformity Clause, unequal assessments must be the result of "systematic and intentional conduct on the part of the assessing official." Westin, 188 Ariz. at 366, 936 P.2d at 189 (quoting North Central, 115 Ariz. at 543, 566 P.2d at 691).