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Young Women's Christian Association of National Capital Area Inc. v. District of Columbia

July 08, 1999


Before Steadman, Farrell, and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Wendell P. Gardner, Jr., Trial Judge)

Argued May 18, 199

These consolidated appeals are from an order of the Superior Court sustaining tax assessments against the property in question for the tax years 1992, 1993, and 1994. The trial Judge, sitting as trier of fact, ruled for the government at the close of the appellant-taxpayer's case because appellant (hereafter "YWCA") had not met its burden of proving anything "erroneous, arbitrary, [or] unlawful" in the assessments, quoting District of Columbia v. Burlington Apartment House Co., 375 A.2d 1052, 1057 (D.C. 1977). *fn1 In particular, although it presented testimony of a large discrepancy between its own appraiser's estimate of the market value of the property for the years in question and the District's assessment, YWCA had not shown -- or even attempted to show -- a defect in the methodology underlying the District's valuation. An assessment, the trial Judge wrote,

"is the result solely of the assessor's methodology used in achieving that assessment. Thus, it logically follows that in order to show how or why an assessment is incorrect, the [taxpayer] must show that the methodology used in calculating the assessment was incorrect. . . . [I]n order to attack the methodology, the [taxpayer] must introduce evidence of that methodology."

By "merely introducing evidence of what [YWCA's] expert did to calculate his appraisal," YWCA "ha[d] only speculated as to incorrectness in the methodology used to calculate the assessment." (Emphasis added).

The trial court's analysis is consistent with our decisions, and we sustain it. Although YWCA concedes that it had the burden of proving error in the assessment, see Super. Ct. Tax R. 12 (b), it argues that it proved a prima facie case of error by demonstrating a gross disparity between YWCA's appraisal and the District's -- at which point it became the District's burden to explain and justify the assessments. Our cases do not support this position. In Safeway Stores, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 525 A.2d 207 (D.C. 1987), for example, we stated that the taxpayer's burden in a case challenging a real property tax assessment is to show that the assessment is "incorrect or illegal, not merely that alternative methods exist giving a different result." Id. at 211. Thus, the fact that the taxpayer's appraiser, using an alternative (or indeed the same) method, arrives at a very different result is not enough to show the required incorrectness or illegality. This follows from the recognition that "there are various ways for determining an accurate estimate of fair market value," District of Columbia v. Rose Assoc., 697 A.2d 1236, 1238 (D.C. 1997), and that the government therefore is given sizeable discretion in "choosing the method or approach for an assessor to use in estimating the market value of a particular property." Wolf v. District of Columbia, 597 A.2d 1303, 1308 (D.C. 1991) (quoting Safeway Stores, 525 A.2d at 209).

The taxpayer's obligation to show error in the assessor's methodology is confirmed by numerous other decisions. In Wolf v. District of Columbia, 609 A.2d 672 (D.C. 1992), error was alleged in the assessor's use of "a predetermined mathematical formula and his calculator." Id. at 675 (internal quotation marks omitted). Rejecting that contention, we stated:

"The fact that [the assessor calculated the tax] by formula -- taking into account the property's site and corner location and its square footage -- is of no consequence, unless appellants can prove either that the basis of the formula is unlawful or that the assessor's computation of the formula in this case was inaccurate. Although appellants claim the District did not assess their "particular" parcel of land and used "arbitrary" figures in its calculation, they adduced no evidence at trial to support those claims." Id. (citations and footnote omitted).

Years before, we had emphasized the taxpayer's burden to prove error in the District's method of valuation or computation, not merely the soundness of its own method. In District of Columbia v. Capital Laundry & Dry Cleaners, Inc., 106 A.2d 695 (D.C. 1954), the court concluded:

"[T]he [taxpayer] failed to show that the assessment of its personal property was arbitrary or capricious, or that it was even erroneous. By proving only its accounting method for computing its taxes, it showed nothing incorrect on the Government's part in assessing on the basis of higher valuations." Id. at 697 (emphasis added).

Recently, we again confirmed that "the mere presence of an alternative viewpoint does not satisfy the taxpayer's burden . . . to show error in the District's assessment." Square 345 Assoc. Ltd. Partnership v. District of Columbia, 721 A.2d 963, 968 (D.C. 1998); see also District of Columbia v. Beatley, 665 A.2d 204, 206 (D.C. 1995) ("[B]ecause the assessment was neither incorrect nor illegal, it must be accepted even if an alternative method might have yielded a different result."); Wolf v. District of Columbia, 611 A.2d 44, 49 (D.C. 1992) (Wolf II) ("Appellants offered no evidence to counter Mr. Harps' [the court-appointed expert's] methodology or to show that his valuations were erroneous."); Brisker v. District of Columbia, 510 A.2d 1037, 1039 (D.C. 1986) ("[T]he taxpayer bore the burden of proving the incorrectness of the government's assessment," which it met "when the evidence showed that the District's 1983 valuation was flawed."); and compare George Washington Univ. v. District of Columbia, 563 A.2d 759, 761 (D.C. 1989) (remanding for resolution of factual dispute where taxpayer had argued in trial court "that the 'stabilized market rent' and the 'comparable sales' analysis [the District's appraiser] used to calculate his assessment were conducted with reference to non-comparable properties").

We therefore agree with the trial court's Conclusion that, "[r]egardless of the magnitude, a difference between two estimations of market value does not illustrate ...

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