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Cerame v. Twp. Committee of the Twp. of Middletown in the County of Monmouth, New Jersey

349 N.J. Super. 486, 793 A.2d 875 (App. Div. 2002)

TAXATION— Ministerial errors in tax assessments are subject to a three year statute of limitations even though the correction statute for actions before the Tax Court does not contain an express limitations period.

In 1995 when a municipality renumbered its blocks and lots, it swapped assessments for two adjacent lots. This resulted in a higher tax bill for 1996 through 1999 than should have been the case for one of the lots. In 2000, the homeowner filed a complaint for recovery of the excess payments. A statute permits mistakes such as this one to be corrected by a governing body. The lower court, relying on the logic of that statute, entered judgment for all of the years in question. On appeal, the Appellate Division pointed out that all of the parties and the court below had overlooked a second statute reading as follows: “The tax court may, upon the filing of a complaint at any time during the tax year or within the next 3 tax years thereafter, by a property owner, a municipality or a county board of taxation, enter judgment to correct typographical errors, errors in transposing, and mistakes in tax assessments… .” Both that statute and the first statute permitted a governing body to correct an error, were applicable to the mistake that had happened in this case. Without objection by any party, the Appellate Division considered the impact of the second, time limiting statute even though it was not raised below. This gave rise to a question of whether the time limit in the second statute applied in this case. Originally, neither statute contained a time limitation. The three year limit was added to the second statute in 1979 . The legislative history of that change indicated that the 1979 amendment was intended to apply only to the statute that gave the tax court the power to correct errors, and not to the statute that gave the governing authority the discretion to correct errors. Nonetheless, “[s]ince both correction-of-error statutes are intended to correct the same wrongs, it would be anomalous, at the least, to conclude that the result of a taxpayer’s suit should turn on the court in which the action was brought. Most importantly, it would be inconsistent with the obvious legislative intent, ..., to place a time limit on such actions.” Therefore, the Appellate Division held that “a suit for the correction of mistakes in real estate tax assessment, whether filed in the Law Division under [one statute] or in the Tax Court under [the other statute], is governed by the three-year limitations period contained in the one statute that had been amended.” Consequently, the homeowner only was entitled to a judgment correcting the mistakes made in the previous three years, and not in the earliest year at issue.

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