Florida’s First District Court of Appeal recently held a church’s complaint challenging the denial of an ad valorem tax exemption should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In doing so, the court provided a good review of the statutory requirements for a taxpayer to maintain an action contesting a tax assessment.
In Sowell v. Faith Christian Family Church of Panama City Beach, Inc., Faith Christian filed suit on November 20, 2015, challenging the property appraiser’s denial of an ad valorem tax exemption for the 2015 year for three pieces of property owned by the church. On April 17, 2017, Faith Christian filed an amended complaint challenging ad valorem denials for 2015, 2016, and 2017. The property appraiser moved to dismiss the church’s claims, and after the trial court denied the motion, the property appraiser sought review by the First DCA.
On appeal, the property appraiser argued the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider the challenge to the 2015 and 2016 years pursuant to section 194.171, Florida Statutes, because Faith Christian failed to pay the taxes due and owing for the 2016 tax year prior to delinquency. Section 194.171 provides, in relevant part:
(5) No action to contest a tax assessment may be maintained, and any such action shall be dismissed, unless all taxes on the property assessed in years after the action is brought, which the taxpayer in good faith admits to be owing, are paid before they become delinquent.
(6) The requirements of subsections (2), (3), and (5) are jurisdictional. No court shall have jurisdiction in such cases until after the requirements of both subsections (2) and (3) have been met. A court shall lose jurisdiction of a case when the taxpayer has failed to comply with the requirements of subsection (5).
§§ 194.171(5), (6) Fla. Stat. (2016).
As of May 11, 2017, Faith Christian had not paid the taxes due and owing on the subject properties, and the taxes on the parcels became delinquent by operation of law on April 1, 2017, pursuant to section 197.333, Florida Statutes (2016). The First DCA held that once Faith Christian’s 2016 taxes became delinquent by operation of law, the trial court lost subject matter jurisdiction over Faith Christian’s challenge to not only the 2016 tax year, but also the 2015 tax year. As the Florida Supreme Court has observed, sections 194.171 “does not allow a court to retain jurisdiction once taxes become delinquent.” Bystrom v. Diaz, 514 So. 2d 1072, 1074-75 (Fla. 1987).
Not only did Faith Christian not pay the taxes before they became delinquent, the church also failed to timely contest the tax assessment. As noted by the First DCA, section 194.171(2), Florida Statutes, requires a taxpayer to contest a tax assessment within “60 days from the date the assessment being contested is certified for collection under s. 193.122(2), or after 60 days from the date a decision is rendered concerning such assessment by the value adjustment board if a petition contesting the assessment had not received final action by the value adjustment board prior to extension of the roll under s. 197.323.” Faith Christian did not meet either of these deadlines for contesting the tax assessment.
Since Faith Christian did not pay the 2016 taxes before they became delinquent, and also failed to timely challenge the 2016 tax assessment, the First DCA held that the lower tribunal lost subject matter jurisdiction over Faith Christian’s complaint. Accordingly, the First DCA directed the lower tribunal to dismiss Faith Christian’s challenge to the 2015 and 2016 tax years.
This opinion provides a good reminder that if you intend to challenge an assessment of property taxes in Florida, you must either pay the taxes for the year in question before the taxes become delinquent or timely challenge the tax assessment.