Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Annice M. Wagner, Trial Judge)
Before Terry and Steadman, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman
STEADMAN, Associate Judges: The National Medical Association ("NMA") is a nonprofit corporation with its national headquarters located in a building owned by it at 1012 - 10th Street, N.W., in the District of Columbia. The issue before us is whether this real estate is exempt from real property taxes. Both the District of Columbia Department of Finance and Revenue and the Tax Division of the Superior Court have determined that NMA is not entitled to the exemption it seeks. We affirm.
The relevant facts are not in dispute and we quote verbatim from the opinion of the trial court.
"The NMA is a nonprofit corporation organized under the laws of the State of New Jersey. The objectives of the association as stated in its constitution and by-laws are: to raise the standard of the medical profession and of medical education; to stimulate favorable relationships among physicians; to nurture the growth and diffusion of medical knowledge and the prompt universal delivery of same; to stimulate education of the public regarding public health; to sponsor just medical laws; and to eliminate discrimination from medical institutions by means of the effective organization of the medical profession within the United States and its territories. The organization's income is derived primarily from dues of its members and from conventions and scientific assembly revenues. NMA sponsors educational and scientific programs throughout the United States. It publishes a monthly journal entitled, 'The Journal of the National Medical Association,' which includes articles, reports, studies and scientific data, submitted primarily by its members. NMA represents the interests of about 16,000 Black physicians practicing nationwide. The organization issues new releases to newspapers throughout the country and in the District of Columbia. NMA sponsors a major convention once each year in various cities at which various disciplines of medicine are represented. The organization researches and publishes information on important health topics and sponsors conferences in various cities. It sponsors major events and meetings which a physician can attend to meet continuing medical education requirements of either State law or hospital policy. The organization has sponsored various health screening projects in the United States. It has conducted seminars in many cities to educate physicians about the AIDS problem. The local chapter of NMA shares space in the subject realty. The local chapter has about 300 members, and it distributes publications to physicians in this area. The subject property is the headquarters for NMA's activities. The administrative functions are conducted in the building.
The National Medical Association purchased real property in the District of Columbia in 1983 at 1012 - 10th Street, N.W., to serve as its national headquarters. On June 1, 1987, the association filed an application with the Department of Finance and Revenue of the District of Columbia seeking tax exempt status for the property. The application sets forth its charitable, scientific, and educational purposes generally. It is stated in the application that the use of the building will be to conduct charitable activities, including publication of a medical journal, organization of educational programs, preparation of policy statements related to the needs of Black physicians and patients and presentation of continuing education programs."
Having been denied the requested exemption by both the District taxing authorities and by the Superior Court, NMA takes an appeal to this court.
Chapter 10 of Title 47 of the D.C. Code deals with the subject of "Property Exempt From [Real Property] Taxation." D.C. Code §§ 47-1001 et seq. (1990). Most of the chapter is devoted to provisions exempting real property owned by a wide variety of specifically designated institutions. However, § 47-1002 provides a generalized listing of some 23 types of exempt property. NMA's principal reliance is upon § 47-1002(8):
(8) Buildings belonging to and operated by institutions which are not organized or operated for private gain, which are used for purposes of public charity principally in the District of Columbia.
The District does not challenge the propositions that NMA is "not organized or operated for private gain" or that the building in question is used for "purposes of public charity." The issue that divides the parties is the interpretation of the phrase "principally in the District of Columbia." The District argues that the phrase relates to "public charity" and thus requires that such charity impact "principally" in the District. NMA, on the other hand, argues, as we understand it, that the phrase refers back to the concept of "use" and requires only that the principal use of the building in the District be for purposes of public charity; that is, it does not incorporate any requirement that the activities of the organization principally benefit the District. There is no factual dispute that if the District's interpretation is correct, NMA fails to meet the requirement because of the mainly nationwide scope of its activities.
It is firmly established in the jurisprudence relating to the District's real property tax that exemptions from taxation are to be construed strictly against the party claiming an exemption. Bethel Pentecostal Tabernacle v. District of Columbia, 106 A.2d 143 (D.C. 1954); Conference of Maj. Rel. Sup. of Women v. District of Columbia, 121 U.S. App. D.C. 171, 348 F.2d 783 (1965); compare YMCA v. District of Columbia, 124 F. Supp. 449 (D.D.C. 1953). Furthermore, we must be mindful of the familiar maxim that "if the words are clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to [the statute's] plain meaning." James Parreco & Son v. District of Columbia Rental Housing Comm'n, 567 A.2d 43, 45 (D.C. 1989).
The joint operation of these two principles -- strict construction of the statutory tax exemption and straightforward reading of the statute's plain language -- compels the Conclusion that the exemption provided in § 47-1002(8) is limited to those buildings owned and operated by charitable institutions and used for purposes of charity having its principal impact within the District of Columbia. Thus, in the clause at issue ("buildings . . . which are used for purposes of public charity principally within the District of Columbia"), the critical phrase "principally within the District of Columbia" is directly and plainly coupled with "public charity." *fn1 Ordinary grammatical and syntactical usage squarely supports the statutory ...