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District Of Columbia v. Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation

January 18, 2001

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLANT,
v.
HELEN DWIGHT REID EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION, APPELLEE.



Before Schwelb, Farrell and Glickman, Associate Judges.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Kaye K. Christian, Trial Judge)

Argued December 16, 1999

Glickman, Associate Judge: In this case we construe the statutory exemptions from real property taxation that are set forth in paragraphs (8) and (17) of D.C. Code § 47-1002 (1997). The District of Columbia Department of Finance and Revenue (the Department) assessed property taxes on a four-story office building and adjacent parking lot located at 1319 18th Street, N.W., owned by appellee, the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation (the Foundation). The Foundation, a Maryland non-profit corporation, uses this property as the headquarters and base of operations for its educational and philanthropic activities. The Foundation's main activity is the publication of a diverse collection of scholarly journals of interest primarily to specialists in the academic community. After paying the taxes, the Foundation applied for an exemption and a refund, both of which the Department of Finance and Revenue denied. The Foundation appealed the Department's denial by filing a petition in the Tax Division of Superior Court. On cross motions for summary judgment, the trial court ruled that the Foundation was entitled to an exemption. Granting judgment in favor of the Foundation, the court ordered the District to refund taxes amounting in the aggregate to $417,549 plus interest. The District has appealed.

We reverse the award of summary judgment. On the undisputed facts of record, we hold as a matter of law that the Foundation is not entitled to the exemptions it claims for its District offices under paragraphs (8) and (17) of D.C. Code § 47-1002. We therefore remand with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of the District.

I.

In support of its claim to an exemption under § 47-1002, the Foundation relies on the following facts, which were undisputed for purposes of summary judgment. The central mission of the Foundation, carried out from its offices in the District through a division called Heldref Publications, is the acquisition, preservation and publication of scholarly journals that are threatened with being discontinued because of budgetary constraints at the colleges and universities which publish them. Many of these periodicals have small circulations confined mainly to educational and research institutions and to scholars in specialized fields of inquiry. The Foundation saves these journals from extinction by buying them outright from the educational institutions that are unable to continue to support their publication and that seek the Foundation's intervention. The Foundation then produces and distributes the journals independently, overseeing and coordinating all aspects of publication from its District of Columbia headquarters.

The sale of its academic journals represents the Foundation's principal source of income. Given the economics of publishing specialized scholarly periodicals of limited circulation, the Foundation produces most of its journals at a financial loss. However, through centralization of administration the Foundation does achieve economies of scale and other efficiencies which enable it to continue the publication of meritorious journals that are in financial jeopardy.

The Foundation has received more requests from educational institutions to take over their publications than it has been able to grant. Currently, the Foundation publishes forty-four periodicals. These periodicals cover a wide range of topics and include such journals as The Germanic Review (formerly published by Columbia University), Historical Methods (University of Illinois), and Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization (American University). *fn1 Scholarly journals such as these are a major vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge and ideas throughout academia. Moreover, publication of articles in such journals is a key factor in decisions on academic promotion and tenure. For these reasons, the journals that the Foundation publishes play an important and valuable role in the academic world.

To perform the essential work of article selection, review and editing for the periodicals it publishes, the Foundation relies on and coordinates the contributions of hundreds of scholars and teachers drawn from educational institutions throughout the country. In the case of some journals, however, academics affiliated with the particular colleges or universities that formerly owned and published them continue to shoulder primary editorial responsibility. The Foundation describes itself as publishing such journals in cooperation with their former schools, although the schools are no longer officially responsible for them.

In addition to its publishing activities, the Foundation bestows annual academic grants and awards to recipients in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. The Foundation also regularly donates books to the Eckles Library of Mount Vernon College, and archives its publications at Georgetown University.

II.

"Decisions of the Superior Court in civil tax cases are reviewable in the same manner as other decisions of the court in civil cases tried without a jury." D.C. Code § 47-3304 (a) (1997). Both the trial court's award of summary judgment to the Foundation and its reciprocal order denying summary judgment to the District are before us. See Kuder v. United Nat'l Bank, 497 A.2d 1105, 1108 (D.C. 1985) ("where the grant of summary judgment to one party constitutes a final judgment in the case, and such order is appealed, we hold that the order denying summary judgment to an adverse party is also appealable"). Our review is de novo. We must conduct "an independent review of the record," District of Columbia v. Pierce Assoc., Inc., 527 A.2d 306, 312 (D.C. 1987); and "we must be assured not only that no issue of material fact existed but also that the prevailing party was legally entitled to the judgment." Tompkins v. Washington Hosp. Ctr., 433 A.2d 1093, 1098-99 (D.C. 1981). We apply the same standards as the trial court. "In sum, a motion for summary judgment should be granted if (1) taking all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, (2) a reasonable juror, acting reasonably, could not find for the nonmoving party, (3) under the appropriate burden of proof." Nader v. De Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1979). "If the facts, construed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and the inferences from those facts, would not entitle the party opposing the motion to have a favorable jury verdict sustained, then the motion should be granted." Id.

In this case the material facts as presented to and found by the trial court are not in issue. The main dispute between the parties is not over the facts; it is over the proper construction of the potentially applicable statutory exemptions. In construing those exemptions, our "`regard for the special function and competence of the Tax Court does not warrant avoiding our responsibility of reaching a decision of our own as to the application of the law to the facts.'" District of Columbia v. Acme Reporting Co., 530 A.2d 708, 712 (D.C. 1987) (quoting District of Columbia v. Seven-Up Washington, Inc., 93 U.S. App. D.C. 272, 275, 214 F.2d 197, 200 (1954)).

The record makes plain that the Foundation is a worthy philanthropic enterprise. As noted by the trial court, the Internal Revenue Service has granted the Foundation an exemption from federal income tax under 26 U.S.C. § 501 (c)(3). The Foundation has also been exempted from District of Columbia sales and use taxes and is entitled to special postal rates as a nonprofit educational organization. However, as we said in National Medical Association v. District of Columbia, 611 A.2d 53, 56 (D.C. 1992), each type of tax has its own "independent and distinct criteria for ...


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