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District of Columbia v. Place

February 9, 2006

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLANT,
v.
EDISON PLACE, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, (TAX-7988-01) ,(Hon. José M. López, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge

CORRECTED COPY

Argued November 16, 2005

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and SCHWELB and FISHER, Associate Judges.

The District of Columbia ("government") appeals the decision of the Superior Court lowering the supplemental assessment of commercial real property owned by appellee Edison Place, LLC ("Edison Place") by $11,193,000. The trial court held that as a matter of law, the District of Columbia could not include an increase in land value in a supplemental assessment because such changes to land valuation can only occur via a scheduled general assessment. The reduction of $11,193,000 represents the portion of the increase identified in the assessment as the increased value of the land. We agree with the trial court's interpretation of the supplemental assessment law -- D.C. Code § 47-829 (2001) -- and affirm the grant of summary judgment in favor of the appellee Edison Place.

I.

Edison Place is the owner of commercial real property located at 701 9th Street, N.W. For real estate tax purposes, this property is identified as Lot 24, Square 405 (the "Property"). The Property had previously been assessed for the full 2001 tax year at $17,608,500. The date of valuation was January 1, 2000. At that time, construction was being performed on the Property but was not substantially complete, thus the original assessment reflected the value of the land only.

Triggered by the substantial completion of the new construction, Edison Place received notice dated February 28, 2001, from the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue ("OTR") of a second-half Tax Year 2001, supplemental tax assessment on the Property. The supplemental assessment accounted for a total of $46,779,500 worth of increased value for land and improvements. The OTR increased the value of the property in two respects: (1) it increased the value of the land by $11,193,000, from $17,608,500 to $28,801,500, and (2) it increased the property's improvement value from $0 to $35,586,500.

Edison Place filed an appeal with the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals ("BRPAA") on or about August 1, 2001. The BRPAA conducted a hearing on December 14, 2001, and issued a decision dated December 27, 2001, sustaining the OTR assessment. Claiming that as a matter of law a supplemental assessment can only be applied to increases in the property's improvement value, not an increase in land value, Edison Place appealed the administrative decision to the Superior Court Tax Division.

As an initial matter, the government filed a motion in limine that it characterized as a request for the trial court to confirm "the District's statutory authority to base a supplemental assessment of real property on the market value of both the land and the improvements." The trial court granted the government's motion in limine. Despite this ruling, Edison Place subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the government did not have the statutory authority to base the supplemental assessment of real property on increased value of the land. Contrary to its ruling on the government's motion in limine, the trial court agreed with Edison Place and granted the motion for summary judgment. Citing various portions of the legislative history, inter alia, the trial court interpreted the law as allowing a supplemental assessment only on new structures, and not on the land itself. The government sought reconsideration of the trial court's grant of summary judgment. After reconsideration was denied, the government timely filed a notice of appeal to this court.

II.

This appeal comes to us from a grant of summary judgment. There are no issues of material fact in dispute; thus the only real issue before this court is one of statutory interpretation. Specifically, the government challenges the trial court's legal ruling that D.C. Code § 47-829 (2001) prevents the OTR from including changes in the value of previously assessed land as part of a supplemental assessment. This court reviews both trial court decisions granting summary judgment and questions of statutory interpretation de novo. See, e.g., District of Columbia v. Cato Inst., 829 A.2d 237, 239 (D.C. 2003) (stating that issues of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo); Joeckel v. DAV, 793 A.2d 1279, 1281 (D.C. 2002) ("We review the grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo . . . . [O]ur standard of review is the same as the trial court's standard in considering the motion for summary judgment . . . . A motion for summary judgment should be granted whenever the court concludes that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." (Citations omitted)).

The rules of statutory construction are well established in this jurisdiction. "Our first step when interpreting a statute is to look at the language of the statute." Jeffrey v. United States, 878 A.2d 1189, 1193 (D.C. 2005). "The primary and general rule of statutory construction is that the intent of the lawmaker is to be found in the language that he has used." Peoples Drug Stores, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 470 A.2d 751, 753 (D.C. 1983) (en banc) (citing Varela v. Hi-Lo Powered Stirrups, Inc., 424 A.2d 61, 64 (D.C. 1980) (en banc)). "It is axiomatic that 'the words of the statute should be construed according to their ordinary sense and with the meaning commonly attributed to them.'" Id. (quoting Davis v. United States, 397 A.2d 951, 956 (D.C. 1979)). When interpreting the language of a statute, we must look to the plain meaning if the words are clear and unambiguous. District of Columbia v. District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals, 883 A.2d 124, 127 (D.C. 2005) (citing Jeffrey, supra, 878 A.2d at 1193). Usually "[w]hen the plain meaning of the statutory language is unambiguous, the intent of the legislature is clear, and judicial inquiry need go no further." District of Columbia v. Gallagher, 734 A.2d 1087, 1091 (D.C. 1999) (citations omitted).

The courts, however, must not "make a fetish out of plain meaning" nor should they "'make a fortress out of the dictionary.'" J. Parreco & Son v. District of Columbia Rental Hous. Comm'n, 567 A.2d 43, 46 (D.C. 1989) (quoting Cabell v. Markham, 148 F.2d 737, 739 (2d. Cir.) (Learned Hand, J.), aff'd, 326 U.S. 404 (1945))."[A] court may refuse to adhere strictly to the plain language of a statute in order 'to effectuate the legislative purpose' as determined by a reading of the legislative history or by an examination of the statute as a whole." Peoples Drug Stores, supra, 470 A.2d at 754 (citations omitted). "[E]ven where the words of a statute have a 'superficial clarity,' a review of the legislative history or an in-depth consideration of alternative constructions that could be ascribed to statutory language may reveal ambiguities that the court must resolve." Id.; see also Gallagher, supra, 734 A.2d at 1091 ("[W]ords are inexact tools at best, and for that reason there is wisely no rule of law forbidding resort to explanatory legislative history . . . ." (quoting Harrison v. Northern Trust Co., 317 U.S. 476 (1943))); Jeffrey, supra, 878 A.2d at 1193 ("The literal words of [a] statute . . . are not the sole index to legislative intent, but rather, are to be read in the light of the statute taken as a whole, and are to be given a sensible construction and one that ...


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