Before Terry and Washington, Associate Judges, and Mack, Senior
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge
Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Cheryl M. Long, Trial Judge)
This appeal arises from a dismissal by the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals (formerly known as the Board of Equalization and Review) (Board) of appellant Ulysses G. Auger's petitions challenging the Board's property tax assessments because the petitions were incomplete. After Auger's petitions were dismissed, he filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the property tax assessments in the Superior Court. The trial court dismissed Auger's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding that he had failed to exhaust all possible administrative remedies. The central issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred in dismissing Auger's complaints for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. We reverse, and direct the trial court to vacate its order and remand the case to the Board for further proceedings.
Auger owns commercial real property in the District of Columbia.*fn1 After receiving his proposed property assessments for the 1994 fiscal year, he petitioned for an administrative appeal with the Board challenging the amount of the assessments.
On May 27, 1993, the Board held a hearing on the administrative appeals. At the hearing, representatives of the District of Columbia Tax Assessor's Office requested dismissal of the appeals on the ground that the petitions were incomplete. Counsel for the Auger interests, acknowledged that he had mistakenly filed an incomplete set of documents with the Board for the 1994 fiscal year due to an oversight on his part. Because the filings were incomplete, the Board orally dismissed the petitions at the hearing, citing 9 DCMR §§ 2009.4, 2009.5, and 2009.6 (1987). The Board memorialized the dismissals in written orders on the same date.
Auger timely paid all of the real property taxes assessed upon the properties in question for the 1994 fiscal year. Thereafter, on September 30, 1994, Auger filed petitions in the Superior Court appealing the Board's decision and the assessments that were imposed. The District of Columbia moved to dismiss all of the petitions on jurisdictional grounds, alleging that Auger had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The trial court agreed and dismissed the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Auger filed timely notices of appeal to this court.
"On appeal, we apply in tax assessment cases the same standard of review applicable to civil cases generally: `The trial court's factual findings are binding upon this court unless they are clearly erroneous; if the findings are acceptable, we will not disturb the court's judgment unless it is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it.'" Square 345 Assoc. Ltd. Partnership v. District of Columbia, 721 A.2d 963, 965 (D.C. 1998) (citations omitted). We review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo. Frederick v. United States, 741 A.2d 427, 437 (D.C. 1999).
Auger argues that the Board's actions, in dismissing his petitions, were clearly erroneous and inconsistent with its own regulations because the Board (1) refused to accept the omitted documentation on the date of the hearing and (2) failed to identify "a prescribed time period" in which the omitted information could be filed to complete his petitions pursuant to 9 DCMR § 2009.9 (1987). Auger further contends that the Board's dismissal of the petitions for incomplete documentation was a final decision on the merits of the case, and that he was not required to request a rehearing under the Board's regulations. Thus, judicial review by the Superior Court was appropriate. Finally, Auger argues that even if a rehearing request was required, the Board waived any rehearing requirement by sending Auger notice that its decision was final and that he had the right to appeal from this adverse decision of the Board to the Superior Court. Therefore, Auger argues that he exhausted his administrative remedies and that the Superior Court erred in dismissing his appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The District of Columbia disagrees and responds that the petitions submitted to the Board by Auger were admittedly incomplete and not in compliance with Board regulations. Therefore, the District argues that because Auger failed to request that he be allowed to provide the Board with the necessary documents to complete his petitions, he had not perfected an appeal to the Board, and the Board's dismissal of his petitions was justified. Further, the District submits that such a dismissal was administrative rather than a final adjudication on the merits, and therefore, the Superior Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. Finally, the District argues that Auger, in addition to failing to request an opportunity to submit the necessary documentation to complete his petitions, also failed to request a rehearing by the Board pursuant to 9 DCMR §§ 2020.2 and 2020.3 (1987), after the petitions were dismissed, thus failing to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit in the Superior Court.
Despite the parties' focus on the issue of jurisdiction based on a question of whether Auger had exhausted his administrative remedies, we believe the central question before the court in this case is whether the Board had the authority under 9 DCMR § 2009.9 of its regulations to dismiss Auger's petitions in the first instance, merely because they were incomplete, without prescribing a time period or otherwise ...